Yesterday I defended Oberlin, my alma mater, after it ranked in the Daily Beast’s college rankings as the school with the worst return on investment. I wasn’t attacking the numbers on which the ranking was based, rather I took issue with the whole exercise of judging a school’s worth based on its graduates’ earning power.
Today I am attacking the Daily Beast’s numbers, which, to review, are the following:
6-Year Graduation Rate: 88%
Average Net Price: $34,797
Average Starting Salary: $38,800
Average Midcareer Salary: $83,900
It’s really the last two we’re looking at. The 6-year graduation rate is unremarkable, especially when you factor in that the Daily Beast entirely ignored colleges that have a graduation rate under 75% (the idea being that you don’t have to ask if that’s a bad return on your investment, you already know that it is). The salary numbers are taken from Payscale.com, and here’s where things get screwy (credit where it’s due: I was pointed down this line of inquiry by commenter DW on my previous post):
Payscale’s numbers exclude anyone who went on to get an advanced degree. Doctors, lawyers, professors, people who decided to get an M.A. in Communications, and I, with my hard-fought M.F.A. in Creative Non-Fiction are not included in the sample. As of yet, I haven’t been able to find a hard number on how many Oberlin grads go on to get an advanced degree, but I did find this sentence on Oberlin’s website in the graduate school section:
“Though many seniors begin the year pursuing graduate school plans, only about 20-30% of the senior class end up enrolling in graduate school immediately following graduation. Most graduates opt to work a year or two and then pursue graduate school plans.”
This implies that at least half of Oberlin graduates go on to get some kind of advanced degree, and thus are not included in the Payscale rankings.
Also not included in Payscale’s calculations: workers who get paid hourly, project-based workers such as freelancers and artists, and anyone who didn’t fill out Payscale’s survey (yes, all of these rankings are based on voluntary reports from the graduates themselves). It’s guesswork at this point, but at most, Oberlin is being evaluated from around 30% of its graduates, and 20% seems more likely.
It’s instructive at this point to look at the Daily Beast’s list of colleges with the BEST return on investment. A trend emerges quickly just from their names. Here are the top ten in order:
Harvey Mudd College, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), California Institute of Technology, Cooper Union, Stanford University, Princeton University, Harvard University, UC Berkeley, Stevens Institute of Technology, Colgate University.
Harvey Mudd is a liberal arts school focused on science and engineering. Cooper Union is devoted to art, architecture and engineering. That means the first four schools focus on tech and engineering, the next four are some of the most reputable schools in the country, followed by another tech school. Careers in tech and engineering are typically lucrative and don’t require an advanced degree. This is exactly what Payscale’s rankings will select for.
Payscale/Daily Beast’s rankings are quite useful if you understand what they measure. Schools that move students into well-paying careers that don’t require further schooling get their due. Schools where many students go on to get an advanced degree, become artists, or simply seek mobile lifestyles that involve a lot of exploration at the cost of building a traditional career are not measured very well by these rankings. It would be one thing to compare English majors across schools, but it doesn’t make much sense to compare the earning power of an Oberlin English major to an MIT computer science major (and if that English major becomes a fulltime author or gets a Ph.D., she is not included in the sample).
Readers like lists and superlatives, which is why sites publish pieces like “20 Colleges With The Worst Return On Investment.” It takes more digging, however, to know what those numbers actually mean.