Which Colleges' Majors Make The Most Financial Sense?


I come across a lot of reports about college cost and return on investment. There seems to be a bounty of data available from various resources to track virtually any trend among any demographic group. This latest report arrived several days ago.

New Data Reveals Which College Grads Earn Most And Which Carry The Most Debt tells how future and current college students can use official government data to gauge which colleges and which majors will make the most fiscal sense. I wish that I'd had access to this kind of information before I started college.

By looking at the median income versus the median debt of graduates from different schools and different types and levels of degrees, these data offer a tangible risk/reward summary for students considering a range of colleges and majors. And, as the report notes, "... some of the examples of the data are stunning, according to the Wall Street Journal." [The Journal is behind a paywall, so if you don't have an account, you can read the bulk of the report's revelations using the link noted in my second paragraph above.]

One example of the "stunning" data:

Bismarck State College can now say its business majors earned a median income of $100,500 one year after graduating -- higher than many [from] elite business schools. And highlighting the amount of debt that students left college with also becomes an important part of the equation. Dentists leaving NYU's graduate program, for example, left school with a median debt of $387,660 while earning just $69,600 ...

The data show that graduates typically earned more in their first year than what they borrowed in total, but 15 percent of programs resulted in graduates carrying a debt load greater than their income. In two percent of instances, graduates owed more than twice their annual salaries. That's a sobering statistic, which should put many pre-college searchers on alert to do some deep research through resources such as these.

Government Tools Offer Resources

These data were uploaded to a consumer website initially created by the Obama administration called the College Scorecard, which offers data on more than 36,000 programs at about 4,400 colleges. This allows future and current college students to compare programs and, according to the report, "defies years of efforts by the higher-education lobby to keep much of this information hidden." Yet another example of what we don't know can hurt us, such as:

For-profit colleges may not like some of the comparisons. Computer engineering students leaving DeVry University-Illinois, for example, owed $53,391 at graduation while earning just $37,800. Meanwhile, students at Wichita State in Kansas leave the same program with just $31,000 in debt while earning $61,800

The effort to reveal the reality of these income vs. debt numbers is part of a Trump administration initiative to make the college landscape a more competitive free market, helping to bring down tuition and student debt. The administration has been working with companies like Google to find ways to make the data more accessible to families.

Here's an example of how that works:

College grads debt to earnings ratio Zero Hedge/The Wall Street Journal

Important caveat: The debt and earnings data represent only students who received federal financial aid, which can be a small number at some universities. The figures also exclude debt taken on by parents on behalf of their children, which has been an increasing trend for parents as they help shoulder the load of student debt for their collegians

The data reveal some sharp disparities in the connection among majors, earnings, and debt. For example:

Science and engineering majors at top schools earned the most. MIT math majors earned a median income of $120,300 after graduating while borrowing just $8,219. Those who earned master's degrees at USC for drama and theater arts shouldered $100,796 in debt while earning just $30,800 their first year out ...

In some cases, "prestige" doesn't always pay off. Ivy League schools don't always produce the top salaries. For example, Columbia University's rhetoric and writing graduates earned just $19,700 their first year out of school, while taking on $28,556 in debt. That's a sobering imbalance for an Ivy grad, I'm sure.

And one final anecdote of reality from the report:

Some students have simply struggled to find work in their field after graduating. 22 year old Johnna Ueltschi borrowed about $32,000 to study psychology and criminal justice at UCF in Orlando. She says she has struggled to find a job and now works as a hostess making $10/hour.

"I was a good student, I graduated on time, I did everything that I was conventionally supposed to do. Finding a job is a lot harder than they lead you to believe when you're in school."

Thus, if you can hurdle the Journal's paywall, you can explore all of the data referenced above using the online search tool.