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Which college degrees earn grads more than $1 million? Maybe not ones from Swarthmore, Penn State.

The hot new metric in higher education is earnings after graduation, and La Salle topped those rankings nationally.

One-year practical nursing program administrator Carol Duell interacts with a low-fidelity mannequin in the skills lab at Eastern Center for Arts and Technology. The skills lab simulates real clinical situations nurses may experience with patients.
One-year practical nursing program administrator Carol Duell interacts with a low-fidelity mannequin in the skills lab at Eastern Center for Arts and Technology. The skills lab simulates real clinical situations nurses may experience with patients.Read moreMICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer

La Salle University wasted no time jumping on higher education’s hottest new metric: earnings after graduation.

Around Philadelphia, La Salle’s billboards plaster local highways, advertising that its grads rank in the top 4% for 10-year midcareer earnings.

”We beat out research-intensive universities [and] elite Ivy League liberal arts schools," La Salle president Colleen Hanycz said last week. “And we did that without a school of engineering, medicine, or law” boosting income after graduation.

La Salle’s marketing of ROI — or return on investment, based on a new Georgetown University study — illustrates a growing question: How much is an expensive college worth in future earnings as students and parents go deeply into hock? Do Ivy League degrees pay off more in the long run? Or can a one- or two-year program in health care rocket your college grad into a higher earnings bracket?

The result is surprising: Georgetown’s analysis found, for example, that a degree from Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J., is more valuable on average over a 40-year career than the Ivy League’s Princeton University, $1.8 million compared with $1.6 million.

In Pennsylvania, half of the top-20 colleges by ROI offered associate’s degrees or certificates, mostly nursing and health care.

“You can’t always go by the biggest brand name,” said Martin Van Der Werf, an associate director at Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce, which produced the study. “You may think the biggest brand will have a higher return [for graduates]. But what the data tells me is that a place that specializes in occupations in industries can be better.”

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The Georgetown group crunched data to derive an ROI for graduates or projected earnings over a career, minus the cost of college, for about 4,500 postsecondary programs and degrees.

Its study came out in November, and La Salle, a small Catholic college with about 3,300 undergraduates in Philadelphia, leaped on the results to advertise its top ranking by earnings.

La Salle ranked in the top 4% nationally in 10-year earnings, top 7% nationally in 20-year earnings, and top 6% nationally in the 30 and 40 years after graduation.

New hot metric

For decades, college rankings weighed average SAT scores, acceptance rates, college culture, and other metrics to help describe the institution and the students.

In 2020, though, what many students — and their parents — crave are well-paying jobs upon graduation and bucks in the bank, particularly as student debt keeps climbing and society becomes more stratified.

"We wanted to say something to people about the value proposition of a college,” said Van Der Werf.

To reach its conclusions, Georgetown assumed that a college student took five years to graduate with a bachelor’s degree and subtracted the “net cost” of those years from career earnings, using federal data. So if the college cost $20,000 a year, the study subtracted $100,000 from overall earnings. In addition, Georgetown considered the five college years as part of the career. So, in effect, the degrees’ values were based on 35 years of earnings, minus the college costs.

The top four-year colleges in Pennsylvania for the projected value of their degrees over 40 years are: University of the Sciences in Philadelphia, $1.9 million; University of Pennsylvania, $1.8 million; Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, $1.75 million; and Lehigh University in Bethlehem, $1.7 million.

The schools’ programs are deep in high-earning fields such as pharmacy, health-care, engineering, computers, and finance.

In Delaware, a degree from the University of Delaware had the highest value over a lifetime, at $1.2 million.

In New Jersey, top schools by earnings after graduation included some well-known, but non-Ivy League, names: No. 6 Rutgers University-Camden, No. 11 College of New Jersey, and No. 18 Rowan University. All three schools boasted degrees with lifetime earnings over $1 million.

Graduates of private colleges generally do better than those at public colleges over a lifetime despite the higher costs, Van Der Werf said.

And certificate programs — such as those for practical nursing — and associate degrees offer better values for graduates with low costs and potentially high-earning careers, both during the early and later years in a career.

“With an associate degree, you get into your profession faster than with a bachelor’s and you get the higher earnings faster,” Van Der Werf said. “I had no idea that it would turn out to be that lucrative.”

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Experts caution that the Georgetown study could overstate the value of certificate programs because mostly older adults attend those. And because these older graduates already have experience, they could enter the workforce at higher pay than younger adults.

Aria Health School of Nursing in Bensalem, part of the former Aria Health system that offered a two-year nursing program, ranked fifth in Pennsylvania in the Georgetown study. Its nursing degree was estimated to be worth $1.58 million.

Jefferson acquired the health-care system in 2016 and closed the Aria nursing program — part of a trend of acute-care hospitals hiring nurses with four-year bachelor degrees in the Philadelphia area. Aria graduated its last class in October.

Jefferson spokesperson Gina Auddino said that Jefferson nursing classes are now held at the university’s Center City or Abington campuses. She said Jefferson’s “overall job placement rate is very high,” 95% of 2018 graduates working in their professions or attending graduate school.

“We know the trend has been to require a bachelor’s degree. That is closing out some people who just can’t afford to go to school for four years,” Van Der Werf said of nursing programs.

Two one-year practical nursing programs in the Philadelphia area landed in the top 20 for lifetime value in Pennsylvania: Delaware County Technical School of Nursing in Broomall and the Eastern Center for Arts and Technology in Willow Grove, both run through public technical schools. Nurses train for jobs in doctor’s offices, nursing homes, pediatric care, mental-health facilities, and even prisons.

The Georgetown study valued the diplomas from both programs at more than $1 million over a lifetime.

“I am thrilled,” said Kate McNamara, supervisor of the Delaware County Technical School program. “I always tell my students you are making one of the best decisions of your life for your money, and then to see it in print was really powerful for me.” Tuition costs $16,000, with additional fees, McNamara said. She currently has about 80 students.

“From the get-go, it’s always been a great bang for your buck,” said Carol Duell, program administrator for the Eastern Center’s practical nursing program.

“Our demographics are the people who can’t afford to go to college.”

The average age of its students is about 30, with 15% of the students men, she said.

The school costs $15,000 a year. Practical nursing graduates make about $50,000, she said.

In New Jersey, the No. 3-valued program — right after Princeton — was the JFK Muhlenberg Harold B. and Dorothy A. Snyder Schools of Nursing and Medical Imaging in Plainfield, with a lifetime value of $1.56 million. No. 4 was the Sister Claire Tynan School of Nursing in Englewood Cliffs, at $1.51 million.

"If you’re in health science or medicine or even a field like education, you’re doing pretty well, while in the liberal arts you’re not so good starting out, but you’re better over time,” said Seton Hall University associate education professor Robert Kelchen.

For traditional four-year colleges, La Salle ranked 27th in Pennsylvania with its bachelor’s valued at $1.2 million over a career. A Temple degree ranked 72nd in the state with a $1 million value. A Pennsylvania State University degree just missed $1 million, ranking 89th among Pennsylvania institutions with a lifetime value of $990,000.

Big schools with low-earning majors such as literature had their rankings brought down by those majors, Van Der Werf said.

Pennsylvania four-year colleges with degrees worth less than $1 million included Bloomsburg ($914,000), Kutztown ($844,000), Point Park ($749,000), and Edinboro ($720,000). In the Philadelphia area, those included Cabrini ($938,000), Neumann University ($895,000), Montgomery County Community College ($863,000), and Community College of Philadelphia ($746,000).

Douglas Webber, associate economics professor at Temple University, said of the Georgetown study: “It’s useful to get these numbers in the hands of consumers, because there are huge differences in outcomes across these institutions.”

Based on his research, Webber projects that a graduate who paid the full cost of a private college and majored in the arts and humanities “has a 50/50 chance of earning more than the typical high school graduate.”

“People in our part of the world are asking: Is a degree worth it?” added Rob Pignatello, president of Lock Haven University, which is north of State College. “Is it worth taking on the debt?”

The Georgetown study places an $841,000 lifetime value on a Lock Haven degree, ranking 146th in Pennsylvania.

Lock Haven is looking at offering more certificate programs related to manufacturing jobs, accepting more college credits for life experience such as police or firefighting training, and expanding its health-care programs.

“We have to pay attention to the market and the needs of employers,” Pignatello said. “Universities haven’t always done that.”