Salary data could be irrelevant for some students

Where prospective students live has a major impact on their higher education pursuits

Recent efforts have tried to make salary outcomes more transparent, but such information may be irrelevant to students constrained by geography and academic selectivity, according to new research from the Urban Institute

Consumer tools like the federal College Scorecard and PayScale have helped students and their families make more informed decisions when selecting colleges and universities. However, research shows that the majority of students stay close to home and consider a narrow range of options when choosing a college.

Community college students travel an average of 31 miles away from home to attend school, while students at four-year institutions travel an average of 82 miles away from home. Many of these students also live in what the report calls "education choice deserts," defined by the Urban Institute as areas in which students have few or no options for academic programs in their preferred field of study.

Here's what colleges and universities have to say about the College Scorecard

Researchers examined public earnings data in Virginia, analyzing the number of available programs for students within 25 or 50 miles of their home. They found that of the Virginia students only eligible to attend open-admissions institutions, 21% live in an education desert, while 42% live somewhere that lacks meaningful earnings data. Only 36% of students in the latter group are able to make an informed decision based on meaningful earnings data, according to the study.

Among students eligible to attend only less-selective institutions, 29% are able to make informed decisions about undergraduate business management programs within 25 miles of their home. However, 63% of students eligible to attend more selective institutions can make informed decisions about pursuing a bachelor's degree in business management within 25 miles of their home.

Meanwhile, 75% of students attending a less-selective institution within a 50-mile radius of their home can make an informed decision about an undergraduate business management program, compared with 97% of students who can attend a more selective institution.

"Place-bound students are not necessarily affected by program-level wage comparisons in the way policymakers might think," says Tod Massa, director of policy research and data warehousing for the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia. "There is too often an assumption that all students are equally mobile in their choice of college."

One college is guaranteeing its students will earn $40,000 out of school

Researchers noted several study limitations:

  • Some academic programs lack strong earnings data;
  • The study uses data for high school seniors, not older, financially secure students;
  • The study does not take into account how online programs bridge geographical challenges; and
  • Prospective students might find earnings data valuable for reasons other than comparing institutions.

"Policymakers should not abandon their efforts to enable prospective students, policymakers and the public to assess colleges and universities based on data on student outcomes rather than reputation and vague impressions from campus tours," the report states. "But our findings suggest that this approach's potential to improve the market for higher education likely lies in the other efforts it makes possible and not in the inherent usefulness of publishing earnings data." 

Students are still concerned with ROI as it relates to college choice

The authors offer several recommendations to make earnings data more meaningful to students:

  • The federal government should refine and provide more detailed data regarding earnings and other labor market outcomes;
  • High-quality information on labor market outcomes should be made more widely accessible; and
  • Policymakers should address the ways in which geography affects students' access to different programs of study.

(Fain, Inside Higher Ed, 12/16; Blagg/Chingos, Urban Institute report, December 2016). 

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