Saturday, December 06, 2008

The Wealth of Majors

I've argued before that average graduate salaries would be interesting to use in program and institutional assessment. I've thought that the government ought to report out these average salaries for graduates of an institution to use as an outcomes measure. They have all that data anyway--why not use it for something? I've even made this pitch to people who work in the Department of Education, but I invariably get a stony response.

There's a report shown in the Wall Street Journal showing data collected by a private company to accomplish the same thing. Take a look and see if this isn't useful information. I wish that for comparison's sake, they'd included people who never finished college, or never finished high school.

Disambiguating cause and effect is difficult, of course. Impossible with the data shown. We don't know if MIT graduates earn more than SIU graduates because the school taught them better or the students were better to begin with, or if perhaps they settled in locations nearer their schools, which have different economies. It may say more about what kinds of people attend what kinds of institutions and major in what kinds of subjects than it does about the effectiveness of a program of study in the eventual production of wealth. Still, this kind of information is useful for parents and students considering their options. The fact that median salaries for philosophy majors is slightly more than that of marketing majors makes me happy.

If the government really were to do such a study, using tax records, financial aid data, and clearinghouse data, some clever person might be able to find a control group in order to untangle causes and effects. A good salary shouldn't be the sole end of education (see this book on that topic), but it's an important factor, and undoubtably useful.

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