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Against a backdrop of rocketing college costs and mounting student debt, many experts, policymakers and families are reassessing the value of a college education. But how to judge the value of higher education has never been clear.
One measure has taken a prominent, if controversial, place: the incomes of college graduates.
For decades the wide differences between college and high school graduate incomes helped justify public investment in higher education. With college costs rising and job opportunities more scarce for new grads since the recession, those numbers have come under closer scrutiny.
This fall President Barack Obama proposed a college ranking system that could factor in, among other data, the graduate earnings from each college. Closer to home, Kansas state legislators scrutinized survey information on graduate incomes, by university department, while touring Kansas University and other state schools in October.
Small part of the story
Donna Ginther, a KU professor of economics and director of the university's Center for Science Technology & Economic Policy, is working on a project funded by the Kansas Board of Regents to match Kansas Department of Labor data about income to graduates from Regents institutions. The goal is to determine the direct economic impact of graduating from a Kansas university.
Ambitious as it is, the study falls short of its aim, Ginther said. For one, salaries are generally lower for college graduates in their first years in the workforce, as they take their first jobs and look to either move up or go to graduate school. More information and a longer timeline would be necessary to fully deduce a college's effect on income, Ginther said.
"I think that while it's informative to see if recent graduates are employed and see their starting wages, that's just a small part of the story," she said.
Across the country, a rising chorus of voices is saying that incomes should not be the measure of value for a college degree at all, or at least not the only measure. Those voices became louder after Obama suggested the national college ranking system.
Gloria Nemerowicz, who heads the Yes We Must Coalition, a group of 33 colleges that serve high percentages of low-income students, said graduate incomes can be a "very crude" way to judge school value. For one, it could penalize schools and programs that don't produce high-income graduates. Those would include programs that educate teachers, social workers, community activists and others who play an important social role but don't receive high compensation for their work.
"Is it their fault that this society doesn't value public school teachers very much?" Nemerowicz asked.
Nemerowicz also said that income and employment outcomes are often influenced by race, class and gender — factors well beyond the control of both students and colleges.
Students and graduates themselves might value more from a job than the size of their paychecks. A 2011 report sponsored by the Career Advisory Board found that more than 70 percent of adults between 21 and 31 considered doing meaningful work among the main factors that defined success for them.
Jessica Nelson, who graduated from KU with a journalism degree in 2011, now works in the public relations office of the Kansas City Area Development Council, a private nonprofit that tries to advance the city's economic interests. Nelson said the experience she's gaining and the job itself are more important than money. "For me it's about growing the community that I grew up in."
Josh Doke, who graduated in film and media studies at KU in 2012, skipped the traditional job search altogether and started a production company with friends. Their company, Rockhaven Films, makes promotional videos and has recently started preproduction on a feature film. Doke said the commercial work pays the bills and leaves time for doing other projects they enjoy.
Pat Eland, who graduated from the KU journalism school in 2012, got a job out of school with Spurs Sports and Entertainment in San Antonio, Tex., where he works with clients paying for sponsorships with the San Antonia Spurs and its affiliates. Eland said his earnings are on the high end for new graduates, but that wasn't his top priority.
"I come to work every day with a smile on my face," he said. "I walk out with a smile on my face."