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Learning Curve

Comparing colleges by economic value of their degrees

Mitchell Hartman Apr 29, 2015
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Question: What do Cal Tech, Concord’s Community College in New Hampshire, MIT, Carleton College in Minnesota, Lee College in Texas, and Pueblo Community College in Colorado, all have in common?

Answer: They are ranked in the top twenty schools in the country for “adding value” to a student’s college years.

According to a new analysis  by the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, these and other top-ranked colleges and universities give students an economic boost in terms of long-term career success and earning power, compared to similar two- and four-year institutions.

Brookings researchers crunched the numbers on thousands of schools that provide associate’s and bachelor’s degrees, comparing graduates’ mid-career salaries and rates of  student-loan repayment, as well as schools’ financial aid and career-services offerings.

“With tuition continuing to rise ever-higher,” says Brookings lead author Jonathan Rothwell, “public policymakers and students are interested in answering the question: What is the college going to do for me? What contribution is the college going to make to my future career?”

A new college ranking looks at which schools contribute most to students’ long-term economic success.

One clear takeaway from the voluminous economic-impact data compiled by Brookings is that any academic study in the STEM fields—science, technology, engineering, and math—is likely to deliver a good return on educational investment. Salaries, benefits, and job opportunities are significantly better in these fields than in professions favored by liberal arts graduates, such as teaching, publishing, social services and government.

Rob Franek, publisher of The Princeton Review, welcomes the new data and rankings from Brookings. He says they offer a much-needed financial lens to help students and families decide where to go, how much to spend, and how much to borrow, for higher education.

The Princeton Review’s popular college guide and online resources highlight many of the nation’s most prestigious, brand-name universities. But Franek says those aren’t the only places worth spending one’s tuition dollars.

“You can’t say, just because of brand perception, that your tuition dollars are going to pay off. A community college might turn out to be the best value for a student paired with a bachelor’s degree in a couple of years,” says Franek.

The federal government, meanwhile, is preparing its own higher-education value assessments to help consumers compare colleges’ relative costs and benefits. Some university administrators worry that the new rankings will result in their schools being stigmatized as a ‘worse buy’ for the typical student’s higher-education dollar, and that their access to federal financial-aid funding will be reduced.

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