A Look at High and Low Earning Programs of Study

Not surprisingly, last week’s release of program-level earnings data in the newest version of the College Scorecard got a lot of attention both inside and outside the higher education community. I have gotten quite a few requests from reporters to dive deeper into the data, and I am happy to oblige with a look at which programs have graduates with the highest and lowest median salaries approximately one year after graduation.

First, a few methodological notes. I decided to look at three groups of credentials: certificates and associate degrees from two-year colleges, bachelor’s degrees from four-year colleges, and graduate credentials (certificates, master’s degrees and doctoral/first professional degrees) from research universities. I defined my samples by merging 2018 Carnegie classifications into the Scorecard data and only analyzing colleges with more than five programs that had enough observations in the dataset to have median earnings reported. So think of this as a look at some of the larger programs of study, with the caveat that the Scorecard’s definition of “program” often encompasses multiple academic majors as they are typically defined.

Now that the methods are set forth, let’s dive into the data. 175 two-year colleges met the above requirements for being in the sample, with 176 programs being represented for minimum and maximum earnings due to ties. Nursing programs were more than one-third of the highest earning programs, while criminal justice was the most common low-earning program.

Most common programs for lowest and highest earnings, two-year colleges.

Lowest earnings (n=176) Highest earnings (n=176)
Criminal justice (n=31) Nursing (n=65)
Health/medical administration (n=27) Information technology (n=18)
Teacher education (n=23) Fire protection (n=14)
Liberal arts (n=16) Allied health diagnostics (n=12)
Cosmetology (n=11) HR management (n=8)
Human development (n=8) Medical assisting (n=7)
Allied health (n=8) Dental support services (n=6)
Median earnings: $21,000 Median earnings: $51,800

At the bachelor’s degree level, 958 colleges were represented with more than five programs. Liberal arts programs in fields such as psychology, drama, and English had the lowest earnings, but biology was the third most common program to have the lowest earnings at the institution. On the high end, nursing was by far the most common program, followed by a number of STEM and business-related degrees.

Most common programs for lowest and highest earnings, bachelor’s degrees.

Lowest earnings (n=972) Highest earnings (n=964)
Psychology (n=92) Nursing (n=352)
Drama/theatre arts (n=84) Computer science (n=93)
Biology (n=77) Information technology (n=75)
English language/literature (n=77) Electronics engineering (n=57)
Fine and studio arts (n=68) Accounting (n=49)
Health and fitness (n=42) Business administration (n=34)
Music (n=37) Computer engineering (n=31)
Median earnings: $22,400 Median earnings: $63,150

 I then looked at the 323 Carnegie doctoral/research universities that had more than five graduate programs with data. The patterns for programs with the lowest earnings are similar, with music, health and fitness, and fine arts popping up on the bachelor’s degree and graduate credential lists. And again, nursing is the most common program with the highest earnings. (Is there a trend?)

Most common programs for lowest and highest earnings, graduate programs.

Lowest earnings (n=330) Highest earnings (n=323)
Music (n=45) Nursing (n=100)
Student counseling (n=32) Business administration (n=42)
Social work (n=24) Pharmacy (n=39)
Health and fitness (n=15) Allied health diagnostics (n=27)
Teacher education (n=14) Educational administration (n=21)
Fine and studio arts (n=13) Dentistry (n=10)
Mental/social health services (n=13) Advanced dentistry (n=8)
Median earnings: $35,700 Median earnings: $103,900

Naturally, when I dug into the data, I wanted to see how my program looked in the College Scorecard data. The doctoral program in educational administration at Seton Hall has median graduate earnings of $110,200 one year after completion, which makes it the university’s highest-paid program (nursing is second at $96,000). Educational administration programs do pretty well, thanks in large part to serving adult students working as principals, superintendents, or higher education administrations. But this is a broad category, including EdD programs in K-12 and higher education and a PhD program in higher education. So can I tell my students with certainty what they will make as higher education professionals? No. But is some information better than none? I think so.

A First Look at Program-Level Earnings Data by Credential Level

The U.S. Department of Education has been promising program-level earnings data in the College Scorecard for several months now following the release of program-level debt data back in May. Debt data are interesting, but I think everyone was waiting for earnings data to come out. And it came out today, sending me scrambling to get into the data in between meetings, teaching, and other responsibilities of a tenured faculty member. The data can be found here, and please do read the documentation before digging into the data.

Before I get back to meetings, here are a few takeaways:

(1) Debt and earnings data are based on different samples of students. Debt data only include people with federal loans, while earnings data include people with any type of financial aid. At community colleges, these samples are quite different because more students typically get Pell Grants than loans. But for graduate programs, the numbers really only differ by a few work-study students.

(2) Most programs aren’t covered in the data, but most students are. For the most recent data file, there are 216,638 programs listed. Of these programs, 45,371 have earnings data and 51,423 have debt data.

(3) Earnings data are soon after graduation. Earnings were measured in 2016-17 for students graduating in 2014-15 and 2015-16. More years of data will be included in the future.

(4) Want to make money? Be a dentist. The program with highest earnings was (The) Ohio State University’s dental program, with earnings of $231,200 and debt of $173,309. Dental and other health sciences programs dominated the top of the earnings distributions, with a few law and business programs thrown in. Most of these programs have high debt burdens. On the other hand, Parker University’s chiropractic program brought up the rear with debt of $193,328 and earnings of $2,700. Something strange is probably going on with the data there.

(5) Earnings and debt vary considerably by credential level. In general, both debt and earnings increase across credential levels, but debt increases at a higher rate. As shown below, the median debt-to-earnings ratio across first professional (law, medicine, etc.) programs was 191%. Earnings often increase quickly in future years, but the first few years won’t be fun.

I look forward to seeing a whole host of (responsible) analyses using the new data, so keep me posted of any good takes. This has the potential to influence families and colleges alike, and I’m particularly interested to see if the data release affects whether colleges close low-performing programs (as I discussed in my last blog post).

Some Thoughts on Program-Level College Scorecard Data

The U.S. Department of Education has been promising to make program-level outcome data available on the College Scorecard for several years now. The Obama administration started the underlying data collection after releasing the initial Scorecard to the public in 2015, and the Trump administration elevated this topic by issuing an executive order earlier this year. I was at a technical review panel at ED last month on this topic, and I just noticed earlier today that members of the public can now comment on our two-day discussion in one of Washington’s most scenic windowless conference rooms.

So I was surprised to see a press release this afternoon announcing that the College Scorecard had been updated in several important ways. This update includes more than just program-level data. The public-facing site now has data on certificate-granting institutions, as well as using IPEDS data on graduation rates that go beyond first-time, full-time students. Needless to say, I’m happy to see both of these improvements, even though I am somewhat skeptical that students pursuing vocational certificates will access the public-facing Scorecard to the same extent that students seeking bachelor’s degrees will.

But this blog post focuses on program-level Scorecard data, which are preliminary and will be updated as soon as later this year. I used the combined 2015-16 and 2016-17 dataset (the most recent year available), which includes data on all graduates who received federal financial aid. This means that coverage is better for certain programs than others; for example, law schools are better covered than PhD programs since relatively few PhD students borrow compared to law students. The dataset contains 194,575 programs across 6,094 institutions.

Here are some highlights:

  • Median debt data are only available for 42,430 programs (21.8% of the sample), as small programs do not have data shown due to privacy concerns. But based on IPEDS completions, about 70% of students are enrolled in programs where debt data are available.
  • Here are the average median debt burdens by credential level:
    • Undergraduate certificate: $10,953 (n=4,146)
    • Associate: $15,134 (n=5,952)
    • Bachelor’s: $23,382 (n=23,649)
    • Graduate certificate: $48,513 (n=266)
    • Master’s: $42,335 (n=7,011)
    • First professional: $141,310 (n=660)
    • Doctoral: $95,715 (n=716)
  • 172 programs had over $200,000 in median debt, and it looks like the top 116 programs are all in health sciences. The data are preliminary, but Roseman University of Health Sciences’s dentistry program has the top listed debt burden at a cool $410,213. Meanwhile, 3,970 programs had median debt burdens below $10,000.

I am thrilled to see program-level debt data, both as a researcher (if I only had more time to sit down and dive into the data!) and as the newly-minted director of higher education graduate programs. Thanks to this dataset, I now know that roughly half of the students in the educational leadership doctoral program (K-12 and higher ed) at Seton Hall borrow, and median debt among graduates is $63,045. I hope that colleges around the country use this tool to get a handle on their graduates’ situations now that data are available for more than just those programs that were covered by gainful employment.

Oh, and about gainful employment. Once earnings data come out (which hopefully will be soon), it will be possible to calculate a debt-to-earnings ratio for programs that cover a large number of students even without the sanctions present in the now-mothballed gainful employment regulations. Also expect to see loan repayment rates in the updated Scorecard, which will shed some interesting light on income-driven repayment rate usage and the implications for students and taxpayers.