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How Much Is College Worth? Congress, States Now Asking Too

How much is that college degree really worth? It’s not just a question for students and parents anymore, but for Congress and for state officials as well, says the WSJ. This week Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) are expected to re-introduce a bill to force states to provide more information about college graduates’ average salaries. Several states already give or are considering giving the public greater access to this kind of information.

We’ll give you one guess as to which interest group is less than enthusiastic about this new push to arm prospective students with more information:

Some colleges are resisting the broader push, saying it would be a burden for states to compile the information, and that it would tell students little they don’t know already.

“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,” said Terry Hartle, senior vice president for government and public affairs at the American Council on Education, a trade group that hasn’t taken a position on the bill by Messrs. Wyden and Rubio. Some officials worry that salary is too narrow a measure of the value of a liberal-arts education.

To be fair, this last point, that “salary is too narrow a measure,” is at least half right. While we need to do more to arm education consumers with information, prospective students really do need to know more than just starting salaries. Many fields offer relatively good pay at the beginning, for instance, but little chance for income growth. A 30-year-old X-ray technician may earn about the same as a 50-year-old one. Nor does average salary information round out a complete picture all on its own.

Even more fundamentally, determining the value of a college degree is about more than forecasting salaries and income growth, and about more than your chances of getting a job. Students and their families also need to think long and hard about the purposes of education.

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