Do Students Have the Right to Know Before They Go?

Price Leaving Certificate or training

It’s nice at first. The paper is gentle as it flutters down from the sky. I am peaceful. Then, there is more. The papers are raining down, a drizzle at first and then increasing to a downpour. I am not so peaceful, now. The sidewalk is littered with the slips. Soon they gather about my ankles, then they are up to my knees, my waist, my shoulders, my neck. They are going to suffocate me! Frantically, I stare down around me at the papers and read the numbers and letters written on them. BILLS. I am drowning in bills. School loans, rent, utilities. They are going to kill me! Then…

I wake up.

Relief. It was only a dream.

But was it?

The reality of the situation is that many recent graduates are drowning in debt, figuratively if not literally. Bloomberg’s editors wrote in their article “Scoring Obama’s College Scorecard,” that from 2000 to 2010, the cost of attending a public university went up 46 percent.

In a past post we published, I gave my opinion about whether colleges as four-year institutions were “worth it.” I reflected on the thoughts of higher education scholars William J. Bennett and Jeffrey J. Selingo. In the end, I decided that the experience of college as a whole—living without your parents, meeting people outside your typical friend group, networking, trying new things—was, in fact, worth it.

I still hold that belief, but I also think that students entering into colleges should be aware of the decisions they are making. A recent article, “Following the Money,” by Samantha Stainburn in The New York Times’s Education Life section encourages students to look into the return on investment (R.O.I.) of their college decisions. She goes on to list’s ratings of colleges with the best and worst scores. (See below for the lists.)

Best R.O.I. Schools


Harvey Mudd College


California Institute of Technology


Polytechnic Institute of N.Y.U.


Mass. Institute of Technology


SUNY-Maritime College


Colorado School of Mines


SUNY-Maritime College (out of state)


Colorado School of Mines (out of state)


Stevens Institute of Tech. (N.J.)


Stanford (California)



Worst R.O.I. Schools


Art Institute of Pittsburgh


Valley Forge Christian College (Pa.)


U. of Maine, Presque Isle (out of state)


Miles College (Ala.)


U. of Maine, Presque Isle


Florida Memorial U.


Springfield College (Mass.)


Hilbert College (N.Y.)


Fayetteville State (N.C.) (out of state)


Ozark Christian College (Mo.)


Even the President has taken notice of the toll that increased tuition has taken on families. He spoke on the issue at the State University of New York, Buffalo and defined America by “our ability to give everybody who works hard the chance to pursue their own measure of happiness.” He then went on to say that there “aren’t many things that are more important to that idea of economic mobility—the idea that you can make it if you try—than a good education.”

But that good education has come at a cost and the amount of debt that students fall into is extreme. That is why Obama has created the College Scorecard.

The problem is that though these scores may have come from a good place in both Payscale’s and Obama’s hearts, there are factors missing from both equations.

  • With the possibility of extra funding based on ratings from The White House’s scorecards, there is a lot of speculation on whether colleges will focus on helping students or will focus on working the system in order to get more money.

  • The “net cost” provided for each college via the White House’s scorecards cannot be customized for each student’s family’s income. A family’s income can dramatically change the actual cost of each college.

  • Perhaps the most important topic of speculation is one that applies to both the President’s scorecards as well as’s ratings. Neither take students’ majors into account. In The New York Times article “New Metric for Colleges: Graduates’ Salaries,” a Payscale spokesperson is quoted as saying that women’s colleges are usually given a lower rating because they do not produce as many graduates in engineering, science, and technology, which are the fields with the highest paying salaries.

Samantha Stainburn points out that though there are a number of online college tuition calculators, “not one of these tools is based on complete or particularly good data. And no site allows students to do what most probably want to do: pick a handful of colleges across the country and compare earnings achieved by graduates in various majors.”

The responses to The New York Times article “New Metric for Colleges: Graduates’ Salaries,” resulted in an Opinion post called “Should Colleges Be Judged by Graduates’ Pay?” In this post, the President of Wellesley College points out that Payscale also does not take into account graduates who went on to get an advanced degree. Payscale’s ratings were compared to those of US News who take other factors like assessment by peers and counselors, retention rate, and faculty resources into account.

Director of Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, Anthony P. Carnevale, is quoted as saying “In the last few years, there’s been a fairly strong push to have colleges report to students when they pick a major what the labor market performance has been. Do graduates get a job in their field, earn enough money to pay their loans?”

In a recent NPR talk on Planet Money, “What’s Your Major?”, speakers Lisa Chow and Alex Bloomberg discussed the wage gap between different majors. Although it is common knowledge that STEM courses tend to lead to jobs that pay more than jobs English or Psychology majors get, the disparity between the two was shocking for both speakers.

Anthony Carnevale conducted a study which measured the average wages of different majors. Only undergraduate degrees were looked at for this study. Still, it is pretty shocking to hear that the difference between the highest paying degree and lowest paying degree, on average, was $91,000 per year.

Even more surprising was that, apart from a couple of major Ivy League schools, it didn’t matter what university a student attended; certain majors just make more money than others. That’s why it’s important to factor majors into the equation. If you are totally uninterested in majoring in STEM, but look at the R.O.I. from a school that has a large amount of students studying in those fields, that number may look great. But because you’re choosing to major in Psychology, that number is going to be very inaccurate for you.

Unfortunately the “Following the Money” article states that “most colleges don’t have the research staff, or desire to chase down graduates and find out what they’re making,” so predicting earnings based on both college and major is a difficult task.

Still, there is a movement toward providing students with this information. Some states have passed laws that require their education departments to gather and give out all of the income data that they have collected over the years.

After our interview with Ana Bertran Ortiz about the role of a data scientist, it seems to me that this is the obvious next step for just such a person. Figuring out a system that would be able to calculate the earnings achieved by graduates of various majors from various schools is just what we need.

The “Following the Money” article points out that both sides of this data could be found within the United States Government. The graduation data is collected by the U.S. Department of Education and earnings are tracked by the Internal Revenue Service. So, in my opinion, all we need is to get someone in there who can look at that enormous amount of data, experiment, and perhaps create an algorithm that would allow future students to search through different pairings of colleges with majors and discover the R.O.I. of each.

But then, just as in all bad dreams, there is a catch. That switch from a simple and pleasant dream to a nightmare. Here it is: the law does not allow individuals’ transcript data to be matched with employment data.

Just like that, my simple solution of applying data science to the world of higher education and graduates’ income has come undone.

Still, there is hope. The article mentions a bill that that has been introduced to the Senate. It is the Student Right to Know Before You Go Act. It is a bill that will allow “the government to publish earnings and employment metrics sorted by major, degree, college and state up to 15 years after graduation.” If that information is published, I believe that it will only be a matter of time before there will be websites where students will be able to match colleges and majors to see the R.O.I. information for both.

This information may not give students a 100 percent accurate reading of their R.O.I. for college, but in my opinion it’s as close as one can get. In this economy, why not be as prepared as possible?

Homework time! Tell us whether you think students should have the right to know before they go. We want to hear your reasons for whether or not students should be allowed to have access to this information. Take some time to read more about the Student Right to Know Before You Go Act and leave your comments below.

P.S. Will knowing have an effect on what school you go to or what you choose as your major? If not, do you still think it’s important for students to have access to this information?


Tell us what you think: