English majors at the University of Pennsylvania took home $29,300 their first year after college, while rhetoric and composition majors at state college Shippensburg University made more, earning $36,500 right out of school.
Both were beaten by new dental hygienists with a two-year associate’s degree from the Community College of Philadelphia, who made $47,900.
These are some of the findings from an exclusive Inquirer online search tool that looks at thousands of academic degrees and what graduates across the region earned in their first year out of school along with what they owed in federal loans. It’s a new way for students and parents to see what they are paying for and assess their ability to repay loans.
With U.S. students expected to borrow $1 trillion from the U.S. government for college over the next decade, the Department of Education released for the first time a huge trove of information on what graduates at tens of thousands of college departments or job-training programs earned right out of school.
Begun under Obama and continued into the Trump administration, the project links federal student loan data at the U.S. Department of Education with personal tax records at the Internal Revenue Service to obtain salaries for new graduates.
The information highlights the chart-topping earnings of graduates who go into health care and computer science. It shows that state school graduates more than hold their own in many fields compared with their private school peers. And the numbers underscore the importance for students to hold debts to a minimum and look at college partly as a major life investment that must be handled deftly.
Readers may wonder which degrees have the worst outcomes for students, leading to low pay and high debt. And which ones are “poverty-busting degrees,” which lead to larger salaries and lower debt. Both can be found here.
With the price of college ever increasing along with student debt, more students now find they must plan for what their earnings prospects will be after graduation. This trend is likely to accelerate and force colleges to do better at getting jobs for their graduates, experts say.
And that was before the pandemic-fueled collapse of the stock market reduced family wealth available for college and other expenses.
“The tide is going out and we are about to find out who is swimming naked,” said Anthony J. D’Angelo, founder of the consulting firm Collegiate Empowerment in Easton, referring to colleges, and their graduates’ ability to pay. “What transforms an industry is information right there in your hand” — on a mobile phone.
So what do the numbers show?
Among the more than 200,000 bachelor degrees awarded across Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware, Carnegie Mellon University computer science graduates had the highest post-commencement pay: $138,900 — with federal student loan debt of $20,500.
Those with a bachelor’s in computer science from the University of Pennsylvania scored second, with earnings of $135,000 and federal student loan debt of $19,500.
At the other end of the spectrum, Hussian College School of Art in Philadelphia had the lowest earnings among bachelor programs. Its design and applied arts majors earned $13,000, close to the single-person federal poverty level of $12,500. The same graduates carried a federal student debt load of $27,000, or more than twice their salary. The data, the only available, are based on 2016 graduates who worked in 2017.
A Hussian College spokesperson had no comment.
Colleges “need to consider whether what they are charging is fair and whether they are doing enough to help their students get good-paying jobs,” said Douglas Webber, an associate professor at Temple University and a national expert on college economics. “Professors generally do a really, really bad job of knowing what the outcomes are for their students once they leave.”
"Some of these outcomes [for students] are so bad that there is no justification, and something has to change.”
He estimated that college programs graduating students with median earnings of $25,000 or less "means that half of the students are doing worse, and that is terrible.”
According to the Inquirer tool, 171 academic programs in the tri-state region graduated students making $25,000 or less. Among them: Arcadia University communication and media studies ($18,900); University of the Arts crafts/craft design, folk art and artisanry ($20,100), and Penn State-Main Campus anthropology ($17,800). The number of programs is actually higher because the Education Department suppressed information on academic programs smaller than 20 students.
Federal student loans for undergraduates in bachelor programs typically max out around $27,000. Independent students, or adults who don’t live at home, can borrow up to $57,500 from the federal government for a bachelor’s. Students can borrow unlimited amounts for master’s and other post-bachelor degrees — which has resulted in explosive debt at some post-bachelor programs.
Median earnings for bachelor’ graduates in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware was $34,700, based on the federal Department of Education numbers.
“These are hard-and-fast data points,” said Jason Hoffman, director of college guidance at the Woodlynde School in Stafford, a private preparatory school for students with learning differences such as ADHD or dyslexia. When parents and students look at student earnings and debt, Hoffman said, “you can narrow the difference between Millersville or LaSalle, or West Chester and Pitt.”
To search college departments and training programs, The Inquirer developed a new online tool for parents, borrowers, professors, university staffers and students to explore one-year earnings after graduating from specific majors in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware.
You can search by school, major, or degree. You can see how programs at different colleges compare, and learn what the estimated monthly student loan payment would be.
The new federal data have drawbacks. They cover only one year of income and skew against liberal arts graduates whose earnings can be low right after graduation but climb throughout a career. The data also make academic degrees that cater to mid-career employees such as nurses look good as they are typically graduating into well-paid jobs.
Most federal loans are part of the debt listed here. But the data set does not include Parent Plus loans, a fast-growing part of the federal loan portfolio, as they are obligations on parents, not students. Private student loans are not part of the data. Federal loans still comprise more than 90 percent of student loans.
Jordan Matsudaira, associate professor at Columbia University, is a former member of the Council of Economic Advisers in the Obama administration and was involved in the early days of the project.
Future jobs "are really front-and-center when people are making choices on college,” Matsudaira said. “It’s a good thing if students know the financial consequences of the decisions they are making and they can weigh those against their own priorities as to what they want to get out of college.”
“For a lot of families, it may not be a reevaluation of going [to college] or not, but a lot of anxiety of whether they can afford" the tuition, said Robert Kelchen, associate professor at Seton Hall. “The liberal arts are under threat because of low earnings after graduation.”
The data in The Inquirer’s search tool show vast differences in college returns for graduates. Some may question whether the degree is worth it — at least initially.
Seventy-one colleges in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware offer a bachelor’s in criminal justice and corrections, with 4,178 graduates. But 363 of the graduates at 11 of those institutions — including Monmouth University, Lincoln University, Mercyhurst University, Neumann University, and University of Phoenix-Pennsylvania, in addition to Strayer University campuses in the three states — carried higher debt than what they earned from their jobs right out of college, according to the federal data.
The 156 political science majors at the University of Pittsburgh’s campuses in Pittsburgh, Johnstown and Greensburg generate a median debt of $27,000 and earnings of $25,200.
It’s unsurprising that the highest-earning masters were MBA graduates of Penn’s Wharton School with financial and financial management degrees, earning $183,600 and carrying $41,000 in debt. There were 378 graduates.
The second-highest earning masters, also at Penn, were graduates of the international/global studies program with median earnings of $181,700 and debt of $101,095.
But a master’s in nutrition sciences at Drexel University paid just $20,500, with federal student debt of $49,799. There were 20 graduates.