June 2, 2016
Enrollment
Many community college students ask their advisors, “What should I major in?” In this interview, Mark Schneider, vice president and Institute Fellow at the American Institutes for Research (AIR), answers that question and points out that, “students need to know that not all college degrees are created equal."
Greg Jarboe
Not All College Degrees Are Created Equal.

Many community college students ask their advisors, “What should I major in?” Well, according to Mark Schneider, a vice president and an Institute Fellow at the American Institutes for Research (AIR), “students need to know that not all college degrees are created equal and that some majors will launch them into the middle class relatively quickly while others might lead to years upon years of camping out in Mom’s basement, driving a beater and struggling to pay off student loans.”

Prior to joining AIR, a not-for-profit organization founded in 1946, Dr. Schneider served as Commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics from 2005-2008. In 2013, the Chronicle of Higher Education selected him as one of the 10 people who had the most impact on higher education policy in that year.

He is the author of numerous articles and books on education policy. His most recent book, Getting to Graduation, edited with Andrew Kelly, was published in 2012 by Johns Hopkins University Press. Higher Education Accountability, edited with Kevin Carey, was published by Palgrave in December of 2010. Charter Schools: Hope or Hype?, written with Jack Buckley, was published by Princeton University Press in 2007. His 2000 book, Choosing Schools, also published by Princeton University Press, won the Policy Study Organization’s Aaron Wildavsky Best Book Award.

Dr. Schneider is also a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and Distinguished Professor Emeritus of political science at the State University of New York, Stony Brook.

Dr. Schneider has been working on increasing accountability by making data on college productivity more publicly available. To that end, he is one of the creators of College Measures, where he serves as president.

The Advocate of Affordable College recently interviewed Schneider. Here are my questions and his answers.

Greg Jarboe: I recently read your analysis of the value of a college degree in The Washington Post. You argued that what matters is not just the school that a student attends but the program of study. Would you elaborate?

Mark Schneider: As rising college costs and student debt get debated around kitchen tables and in the presidential campaign, price tags and loan totals may be blinding us to a basic economic fact. Whether college costs and debt are too high depends on what graduates earn after completing their degrees. If, as many calculate, the bachelor’s degree is really worth an additional million dollars in lifetime earnings, then the average debt of $30,000 that comes with it ranks among the best investments a young adult could make. Trouble is, while education pays, it pays a lot more for some graduates than for others — and not all will reach or even come near the million dollar mark.

Luckily, predicting who will is no longer a crapshoot.

Measures of the labor market value of college degrees have improved dramatically over the last few years. Many states and the federal government now report the earnings of graduates at different career stages. But the federal government’s College Scorecard wage data are limited to a single number for an entire college or university.

In contrast, many states are reporting what graduates with different majors at different schools earn. Now a student in Virginia, for example, can see how much graduates from different sociology programs throughout the state are making after graduation. Or they could see how much a sociology grad from Virginia Tech pulls down compared to a Virginia Tech business grad. Or they could see whether getting a master’s degree from University of Virginia would pay significantly better than stopping with a bachelor’s degree in the same major from the same school. States are able to report these detailed wage outcomes by matching unemployment insurance wage data with information about where students studied and where they graduated from.

Greg Jarboe: Your analysis is based on your work with seven states. Can you tell our readers what was the most surprising thing you’ve found?

Mark Schneider: Yes, I have worked with Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Minnesota, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia to make these data more understandable. This work has been done in a partnership between each state and College Measures, a division of the American Institutes for Research, which is a non-partisan, not-for-profit research company.

The data, which can be found at www.collegemeasures.org/esm, has yielded important insights and some real surprises. Here is one: Despite national emphasis on high-quality early childhood education, the training programs that prepare students to work in this field consistently produce some of the country’s lowest paid graduates. In some states, students with credentials in early childhood education earn less than high school graduates.

Greg Jarboe: In the Post story, you said, “community colleges may become an alternative to graduate school!” Can you explain how you reached this important insight?

Mark Schneider: What a student studies matters. Overall, the median wages of college graduates increase with each step up the educational ladder. Bachelor’s graduates out-earn associate’s graduates, and master’s graduates bring home more than bachelor’s graduates. But associate’s degrees in some fields lead to wages that rival or surpass those of bachelor’s graduates. That helps explain why many community colleges now report that 10 percent or more of their students already have bachelor’s degrees and are looking for degrees that pay better. Given this trend, community colleges may become an alternative to graduate school!

Greg Jarboe: You provided an example where graduates with an associate’s degree earned more than the median wage of graduates with master’s degrees. Can you share more details?

Mark Schneider: Yes, master’s graduates on average earn more than bachelor’s graduates, but not always. In Texas, for example, graduates with master’s degrees in music, fine and studio arts, English language and literature, and social work earned less than the median wage of graduates from associate’s degree programs.

Many of the largest programs of study, especially in the arts, produce graduates that earn low wages throughout at least the first decade in the workforce. And that “start low, end low” pattern usually lasts (and lasts).

Greg Jarboe: You also took a much closer look at graduates in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) than I’ve seen before. Can you share the real surprise with our readers?

Mark Schneider: The often discussed shortage of graduates in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) does not translate uniformly into higher wages for graduates in these fields. Job seekers with degrees in biology, the nation’s largest science field, don’t fare especially well in the labor market, earning about the median wage of graduates from all bachelor’s degree programs. In contrast, graduates of TEM (just technology, engineering, and math) fields consistently earn higher wages than most of their peers.

Greg Jarboe: Finally, why do graduates in many health-related programs earn high wages, as do technicians at every level of postsecondary education?

Mark Schneider: Graduates in many health-related programs earn high wages, as do technicians at every level of postsecondary education. The rule of thumb is that students who know how to fix things or know how to help people stay healthy earn higher wages.

Given rising costs, high debt and an uncertain job market, questions about the value of a college degree have proliferated. As the debate heats up, remember that, overall, college is a good investment. Even if it isn’t uniformly worth a million dollars, college graduates earn more than high school graduates and they are far less likely to be unemployed.

But students need to know that not all college degrees are created equal and that some majors will launch them into the middle class relatively quickly while others might lead to years upon years of camping out in Mom’s basement, driving a beater and struggling to pay off student loans. Fortunately, as wage data become more available, it will become easier for students to make better decisions about what to study, how much to pay, and how much to borrow for that education.

(Greg Jarboe is the editor of The Advocate of Affordable College blog and the former editor of the Knowledge Transfer blog. He’s also the president and co-founder of SEO-PR, an instructor at the Rutgers Business School, the content marketing faculty chair at Market Motive, as well as the author of YouTube and Video Marketing: An Hour a Day.)