Heavy pressures for more accountability are descending on colleges. Senators Ron Wyden and Marco Rubio want states to release data on salaries for recent grads of public colleges, and Eric Cantor pledges the same in the House. The information, the argument goes, would help parents and high school seniors make wiser choices, the reasoning goes, with student debt pressing students to think not only about matriculation, but about the job market as well.
Of course, colleges don't want the extra burden of compiling data--a reasonable concern--while an official at the American Council on Education worries that the salary measure is too narrow and that it will reflect poorly on the fine arts ("You don't need a database to tell you that people who major in fine arts won't earn a lot of money when they graduate," he says.)
We might add that it will produce some striking findings that gainsay much of the common beliefs about higher education. The story cites one case in Virginia:
"Among graduates who live in Virginia, the highest starting wages for a bachelor's degree were $56,400 for graduates of Jefferson College of Health Sciences, a Roanoke school that largely turns out nursing graduates.
"That was 42% higher than the University of Virginia's average of $39,648. Overall, students with associate's degrees in technical fields, such as health care, earned more than recipients of bachelor's degrees."
Overall, a two-year technical degree pays more than four-year bachelor's degree? That certainly upsets the universal presumption that two-year colleges are inferior to four-year ones.
If the data can be broken down by major, further embarrassments may follow. Many would love to examine salaries for graduates in various social science and humanities fields. Think of what they might do with the results. An administrator who needs to make cuts in order to meet a budget could use low performers as justification for his or her choices. A department that scores highly would likely insert the results into its promotional literature. Departments that sit at the bottom of the salary list would . . . well, what would they do?
The Chronicle of Higher Education would collect national data and publish them, producing a whole new element in higher education commentary--the "success measure" (or something like that). Fields that produced low-income graduates would forever be on the defensive, any mention of them in the press potentially carrying with it the addendum of poor employment prospects. Undergraduates might vote with their feet, prodded by parents, while legislators and governors will ask, "Why are we supporting departments that don't support our economy?" Fair or not, those are the implications.