The Value of Higher Education


What is the worth of an associate degree, a bachelor’s degree, and beyond? What is a student’s return on investment?

Questions like these—once considered tertiary to the role of higher education (and in some circles perhaps even a little crass)—are becoming increasingly more relevant to students and policymakers.

We reported in May about the study from the CCRC folks about determining the “bang for the buck” using fiscal and social cost of a degree.

Earlier in the year, we reported wage information released on the “academically adrift” cohorts.

Now, Tennessee has published a study on student success in terms of degree earned and type of institution based on first-year salaries after graduation.

In The Earning Power of Graduates from Tennessee’s Colleges and Universities, the College Measures and American Institutes for Research team partnered to compare first-year earnings of recent grads from community and four-year institutions.

After an analysis of specific colleges and specific programs of study, some interesting bits of information bubble up.

While health, business, and engineering degree recipients earn more than liberal arts grads, there is great variation among institutions in the same programs. In some cases, students from two-year colleges earned higher salaries than their four-year-institution-attending counterparts.

A limitation to the findings is the wide range in the number of students in programs and the access to meaningful wage data about graduates.

Nevertheless, this appears to be yet another of a growing number of important economic studies about the value of higher education, opening the door for other, more rigorous studies of future income.

Still, calling out colleges on salary rates at this stage of the game seems a little blunt. What are we to conclude from the evidence? How are those colleges with lower rates to respond to such a first, rough cut at the data?

(The Chronicle article on the study requires subscription.