Ranking a College by whether a Graduate gets a job

Students of Harvey Mudd College walking to their graduation ceremony. There is a growing nationwide movement toward quantifying the outcomes of college education based on economic factors like income and employment.

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Published: September 13, 2013 247 Comments
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  • What they won’t find is any way to assess what some consider the most important issue in this still-tough economy: How much can graduates of these schools expect to earn?

For those answers, long a taboo within the hallowed walls of academia, they can turn to PayScale.com. Like U.S. News, PayScale this week released its latest rankings of colleges and universities. But its rankings are all about incomes and jobs. It ranks over a thousand institutions by the average earnings of their graduates. It also calculates and ranks the average return on investment for a college and the percentage of graduates holding jobs with “high meaning.” Some of those results may come as a shock, especially to graduates of some prestigious colleges.

There’s a fairly high correlation between the reputation and selectivity-weighted rankings of U.S. News and the future earnings measures of PayScale. Ivy League graduates do quite well by both measures, with Princeton ranked sixth and Harvard eighth in PayScale’s rankings based on “midcareer median salary.”

But many liberal arts colleges suffer in the comparison, including some prestigious ones. Oberlin, 25th on the U.S. News list of national liberal arts colleges, is 218th on the PayScale ranking; Colorado College, 31 on the U.S. News list, is 291; and Grinnell, at 17 on U.S. News, is 366.

Elon University, ranked by U.S. News as the No. 1 regional university in the South, is a distant 587 on PayScale’s list.

And there’s a notable gender gap. Women’s colleges rank especially low:

  1. Wellesley (U.S. News, 7) is 304;
  2. Barnard (U.S. News, 32) is 221;
  3. Smith (U.S. News, 20) is 455;
  4. and Bryn Mawr (U.S. News, 30) is 562.

(A PayScale spokeswoman said that’s because the women’s colleges still don’t produce enough graduates in engineering, science and technology, the fields that draw the highest salaries.)
The top of the list is dominated by engineering schools, including Harvey Mudd College (16 on the U.S. News ranking of liberal arts colleges, first on PayScale’s); the California Institute of Technology (U.S. News, 10; PayScale, 3); Stevens Institute of Technology (U.S. News, 82; tied for third place on PayScale); and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (U.S. News, 7; PayScale, 11). The Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, Ind., isn’t even ranked by U.S. News but ties for 20 on PayScale — ahead of the University of Notre Dame (24). The national military academies, as well as the Virginia Military Institute, also rank high on PayScale’s list.

PayScale’s rankings are just one manifestation of a growing nationwide movement toward quantifying the outcomes of college education based on economic factors like income and employment. The Obama administration wants to rank colleges by tuition, graduation rates, debt and earnings of graduates, and use the rankings to influence federal financial aid to students.

But this can lead to some absurd and potentially alarming conclusions.

In Virginia, the top-ranked college based on graduates’ first-year income isn’t the nationally known Washington and Lee University, the University of Richmond, the College of William and Mary or even Thomas Jefferson’s University of Virginia. It’s the Jefferson College of Health Sciences.

“People are desperate to measure something, so they seize on the wrong things,” Mark Edmundson, a professor of English at the University of Virginia (PayScale, 76), told me this week. “I’m not against people making a living or prospering. But if the objective of an education is to ‘know yourself,’ it’s going to be hard to measure that.”

Professor Edmundson is author of the recent book “Why Teach? In Defense of a Real Education,” which argues that education should transform students by challenging and expanding their conceptions of themselves. “Self-realization doesn’t just mean sitting around discussing Plato and Socrates,” he said. “It means figuring out what job or profession would I be best at and what I would enjoy. Too many people are just aiming for a high salary. They struggle through college, they don’t like their classes, they don’t like their job and they end up failing. If they had taken the time to discover themselves, they might have ended up happy and prosperous.”