For the first time, the U.S. Education Department has published data allowing students to compare salary and debt levels for specific college programs rather than for entire institutions only.
The information was made public Wednesday on the agency’s updated College Scorecard website, which was created under the Obama administration to help students evaluate which colleges provide the best value. The update is seen as a milestone in the department’s efforts to shine a light on programs that leave students with heavy debt and low incomes.
Previously, students could use the online tool to compare salary and debt averages for entire schools, benchmarks that the Education Department now says are “fairly meaningless.” Students today can sort through specific majors within a school and see how they stack up against one another, or against programs at other schools, and see which ones lead to the highest salaries or the lowest debt.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said the new tool provides “real information students need to make informed, personalized decisions about their education.” By providing the same statistics for all institutions, she said, students can compare any programs they are considering “without regard to the type of school.”
The website allows students to search for a specific school or to browse by field of study or degree type. It offers information on schools from Ivy League universities to vocational schools and certificate programs.
There are some drawbacks.
The earnings data are available for only 20% of the 200,000 programs listed in the department’s database, while others are hidden for privacy reasons because they had few students. The earnings figures were measured a year after graduation and reflect students who received federal loans or Pell grants only. They do not count students with no earnings.
Still, the effort was applauded by advocacy groups and scholars who have long awaited better data on college outcomes. Chiefs for Change, a nonprofit that represents city and state education leaders, said the sites gives students important input when deciding what to do after high school.
“With information about average debt and earnings, students will have a better sense of the potential return on their investment in higher education,” Mike Magee, the organization’s CEO, said in a statement.
DeVos promised to expand the College Scorecard in August 2018 as she repealed an Obama-era rule requiring the department to publish earnings and debt data on career training programs that were primarily housed at for-profit colleges. That rule aimed to cut federal money for programs that repeatedly left students strapped with heavy debt and low incomes.
But DeVos said the rule unfairly targeted the for-profit sector and used flawed data. Instead, she said students should get equal information about all types of schools and make decisions about where to attend on their own.
President Donald Trump supported the College Scorecard expansion in a March executive order, saying middle-class American families were “getting ripped off” because they don’t have enough information about college outcomes. He said colleges were “making a fortune” at their expense, building “tremendous endowments.”
But some critics say DeVos’ approach doesn’t do enough to go after schools that fail their students. Among those taking exception with the rollout on Wednesday was Michael Itzkowitz, who directed the College Scorecard under President Barack Obama and is now a senior fellow at the Third Way education think tank.
“Bottom line: It’s great to have new data,” Itzkowitz said on Twitter. “However, this is a transparency effort that can in no way serve as an equal substitute for actually holding institutions and programs accountable.”
Researchers are beginning to dig into the new data on the site, and many expect discussions about which types of schools are helping students and which aren’t.
One early finding is that pays to be a dentist. Nine of the 10 highest median salaries a year after graduation were for dentistry programs, topped by Ohio State University at $231,200. Those programs also carried heavy debt, with an average of about $200,000 in the top 10 programs.
There were also more than 100 programs in which the median debt was more than four times greater than the median salary, including some film, drama and visual arts programs at prestigious schools such as Columbia University and New York University.