Sixty-six percent of the graduates of my alma mater earn more than people who have only a high-school diploma. This fact comes courtesy of the U.S. Department of Education’s new “College Scorecard.” I took advantage of the online interactive system to see how well Haverford College alumni stack up in the race to achieve financial stability.
The new College Scorecard has been pretty well received since it debuted on September 12. It replaces one that originally debuted in February 2013, but which lacked much of the financial data President Obama promised in his 2013 State of the Union speech.
The new, more data-rich version has occasioned reflections ranging from worries about the “more than one out of every three student borrowers nationwide” who fail to “make any progress in repaying their loans,” as Michael Stratford put it in Inside Higher Ed, to complaints that the Obama administration abandoned the rankings it had promised would be part of the new Scorecard because of pressure from college presidents and “organizations,” as NPR put it. Meanwhile conservatives noted that the Department of Education had simply excluded from the Scorecard colleges such as Hillsdale and Grove City.
The snub to Hillsdale was especially interesting. Obama had promised the Scorecard would cover “every institution of higher education.” John Hinderaker on Powerline picked up the story that Assistant Press Secretary for the Department of Education Denise Horn defended Hillsdale’s exclusion on the grounds that the famed liberal arts college primarily awards “certificates” rather than bachelor’s degrees. This is simply false, and it is a little disconcerting that another federal project aimed at creating greater transparency in an important sector of the economy has been launched trailing clouds of obfuscation.
But it is probably better to take the Scorecard for what it is rather than for what is missing. It is a scorecard that declines to say who is winning or even what all the teams are, but it does provide vast quantities of data if only we can figure out how to make sense of the numbers. Here I will try my hand at that, starting with Haverford.
Diving Into the Numbers
That 66 percent of Haverford grads who out-earn their high-school-only counterparts is a number that in pristine isolation doesn’t mean much. If I had to guess, I would have thought more than two-thirds of the ‘fordians abroad in the big world would be out-earning the kids who decided to live the lifestyles for which a high school diploma alone entitles you.
Now, when I think about it, I see the complications. Some Haverfordians pursue self-sacrificial career choices. They spend their lives paying witness to social justice crusades that Don Quixote himself would have thought lunatic. They turn conservative and seek careers in higher education, where they are relegated to Flying Dutchman lives as perpetual adjuncts. You get the picture. Haverford, with its active Quaker tradition, may be a little deficient in stoking the profit motive in its young charges.
And on the other side of the equation, some high-school grads have the Midas touch. They get at least a four-year advantage in acquiring marketable skills and seniority. And if they have the knack for earning money by building, repairing, selling, cooking, or renting things, they can thrive in this America.
So maybe 66 percent of my fellow grads out-earning their high-school counterparts is reasonable. But what I really need to do is see how that 66 percent matches up with other colleges. But maybe first I’d better check the fine print in College Scorecard.
Look at the Fine Print
The Big Print says “Salary after Attending” Haverford is $55,600. The fine print explains that this means “The median earnings of former students who received federal financial aid, at 10 years after entering the school.” The 66 percent figure likewise turns out to have some qualifiers. It refers to the percentage of former students who earn more than $25,000, “the average earnings of a high school graduate aged 25-34, 6 years after they first enroll.” Got that?
I am suddenly struck that a third of the graduates aged under age 34 are earning less than $25,000. Perhaps they are spending their 20s in graduate programs, writing dissertations, doing post-docs, and making ends meet with odd jobs. That was pretty much my life. Or they have enrolled in law schools in the ill-founded expectation that a lucrative career at a major law firm would be waiting three years out, and are now hustling real estate or tending bar.
There is this little consolation, written into every College Scorecard graph. The national average earnings for the up-to-10-years-out is $34,343. So ten years after graduation, the average Haverfordian has a premium of $30,600 in annual salary over the average high-school-only graduate, and a $21,257 premium over the average college graduate. That sounds like a pretty good deal.
Especially since the average annual cost of attending Haverford is $18,853. That figure is also from the College Scorecard. It includes only students who take federal financial aid. The Scorecard also breaks it down by family income. A family with under $30,000 in annual income pays on average a net Haverford bill of only $5,685. Oddly the average cost falls for families on the $30,000 to $48,000 range to $5,599. Then it quickly escalates: $15,612 for family incomes up to $75,000; $18,476 for family incomes up to $110,000; and $38,323 for family incomes above that.
The College Scorecard doesn’t say, but Haverford’s official tuition is $48,656; room and board is $14,888; and the student activity fee is $442, for a grand total of $63,986 per year. So those net college costs reported by the College Scorecard represent hefty discounts from the sticker price. In fact, more than half of Haverford students also receive “college grants” and these grants average $40,014.
Putting costs and potential income together, one could conclude that Haverford is a reasonably wise “investment” for a young person who seeks a liberal arts education without undue risk of poor earnings or insupportable debt. “Typical total debt” for Haverford graduates, according to the Scorecard, is $13,854. The fine print explains, however, the “total” in “typical total debt” isn’t total at all. It is just total federal student debt—excluding private debt and debt secured by students’ parents such Federal PLUS loans. Nor does “typical” mean typical. $13,854 is a median figure, and only 20 percent of Haverford students receive federal loans.
So it is not surprising that a robust 95 percent of Haverford graduates who took federal student loans have paid “at least $1 of the principal balance” within three years of leaving school. I do wonder about the remaining 5 percent who could not scrounge up even that much. The national average among college students paying down their debt is 67 percent.
My apologies to readers who have steadfastly walked beside me through those numbers. The main things to be taken from them, I would say, is that the Department of Education has assisted a very expensive college in its efforts to look affordable and that the DOE has also advanced the narrative that traditional colleges are still a financial bargain for most of the students who attend them.
To go deeper than this requires that you make comparisons, and the Scorecard certainly lends itself to both consumer shopping for the highest rates of return on “investment” in college expenses and to various sorts of ranking. NPR’s Planet Money team provided some of the rankings that the Department of Education decided not to. The Planet Money team came up with several analyses. Anthony Carnevale’s list offers no great surprises: his rankings, which blend income and some other factors, put Harvard first, with the median wage of graduates ten years after entry as $87,200. Next are MIT, Princeton, Stanford, and Babson. The highest median earnings, however, come not to Harvard grads but to MITers, at $91,600. Number six on the list is the Georgia Institute of Technology, at $74,000—then Georgetown, the University of Pennsylvania, and “University of the Sciences in Philadelphia” (the new name for the former Philadelphia College of Pharmacy), and so on.
Other Planet Money lists focus on colleges that emphasize upward mobility and colleges that leave students with “little debt and good financial opportunities.” The lists differ in appreciable ways. Duke is number 13 on Carnevale’s list, absent on the upward mobility list, and number 1 on the best financial sense list.
We will be playing this new game for many years to come. It is nothing to be especially happy about: just one more step in the fatal march towards treating higher education as a commodity.
The data plays into the hands of those who are endlessly preoccupied with the forms of “inequality” in our society. Kevin Carey writing in the New York Times observed, “the deeper that you delve into the data, the more clear it becomes how perilous the higher education market can be for students making expensive, important choices that don’t always pay off.”
Yes, the data show that, which one might say is a reason to be a little more cautious in how emphatically we speak of college as an “investment.” Carey, however, turns his attention to the “earnings gender gap” revealed by the data. At Duke, the median earnings for women graduates are $93,100—which is pretty nice. But the median for Duke’s male alumni ten-years-out is $123,000. What are we going to do about it? Carey doesn’t say but he is broadly on the side of “need-based financial aid to low-income students.”
Carey does give a nod to the danger of “defining higher education in purely economic terms.” But the risk he sees arises from “corporatization of the modern university,” which scants the need for students to learn to be better citizens, and the need for “dancers and poets” as well as “investment bankers and tech entrepreneurs.”
He goes not nearly far enough. Higher education is about entrusting to each new generation the legacy of a civilization. We learn—or we should learn—respect for reason, civil dialogue, the great accomplishments of art and science, the enormity of our failures, the profundity of our ideals, and a great deal more that makes us not just capable of carrying forward a society worth living in but an eagerness to do so. A college education rightly conceived prepares its graduates for leadership in that society, not just material success—and maybe not even material success, since a high income ten-years-out isn’t necessarily the only or the best mark of leadership.
To say these sorts of things, of course, is to risk a derisory smile or two. The worldly wise know that money counts, and faced with enormous tuition bills and substantial debt, nearly everyone will consult the numbers first and the ineffable ideals maybe later.
But the ideals are, in the end, what matters. There would be no college education for anyone if Western civilization hadn’t created and sustained the conditions for higher education. Our colleges and universities now coast on the considerable momentum of that achievement, but they do little to replenish it. The College Scorecard is one more step downward towards a utilitarian calculus of learning—a calculus promoted far more by the egalitarian left than the freedom-minded right.
I suspect we would have been better off as a nation without having launched this particular invitation to compare paychecks, but there is probably no going back. Those of us who care about defending liberal learning against the tendency to dissolve everything in the universal solvent of money have one more obstacle. And no doubt our overpriced and profligate colleges and universities have brought this on themselves.