Does high-priced education translate into a fat salary? Sometimes, but not always.

That's according to the new College Scorecard database, a government-mandated ranking that aims to help students and parents understand "return on investment" for a college degree.

For the first time, this new U.S. Department of Education database ranks schools by graduates' salaries 10 years later, and links them to such factors as tuition costs, total debt, and graduation rates.

The clear local winner was the University of the Sciences, with a median income of $82,203 after loan payments. Loan balances total a median $27,000.

The University of Pennsylvania ranked second in the state in income and 10th in the nation.

Princeton topped the list for New Jersey, with earnings after debt of $74,193.

At the bottom in salaries? Colleges devoted to religious instruction and art schools, such as the Art Institute of Philadelphia, Cairn University-Langhorne, Cheyney University, and Valley Forge Christian College.

The College Scorecard is not as definitive as its name may suggest: "It's only a ranking of colleges good for student loan borrowers - since the incomes reported are of people who got federal aid," says MagnifyMoney cofounder Brian Karimzad, whose site helps consumers save money.

The scorecard doesn't break out salaries by degree or major. Students' financial success may be more the result of their innate abilities or family connections than the schools they attend.

And some schools, such as pharmacy, lead to better-paying jobs, while graduates make far less if they came from colleges that focus on "helping" professions, such as religious studies and social work.

Still, the rankings - at CollegeScorecard.ed.gov - present a way to start the conversation about affordability and help plan for the future.

The Inquirer compiled College Scorecard rankings for four-year undergraduate institutions with more than 500 students in Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey.

Some of the more expensive colleges did seem to translate into higher earnings. Drexel's annual net cost totaled $33,742; students earned a median income of $57,623.

The Penn State system of schools ranked in the middle. Median earnings after debt payment for Penn State grads totaled $43,903, while net cost varied from $13,276 at the Abington campus, to $27,032 on the main campus.

"Our president, Dr. Eric Barron, has identified access and affordability as two of the most pressing issues in American higher education," said Robert N. Pangborn, Penn State dean for undergraduate education. "Tuition is an important factor in the cost of a degree, but even more important is degree completion in four years. An extra semester or year of college can effectively constitute the biggest tuition increase of all."

The White House pushed for the online College Scorecard tool, which was first published in September. "Everyone should be able to find clear, reliable, open data on college affordability and value," President Obama said in a recent radio address. "America needs our colleges to focus on affordability."

MagnifyMoney analyst Karimzad crunched College Scorecard's data for The Inquirer to calculate income after loan payments.

In Pennsylvania, "what's surprising is there are fewer technical schools and more broad higher education institutions, with higher earnings. The lesson is, don't exclude a school because the sticker price is too high. Even if high, the loan can be worth it, as median incomes are significantly higher," he said.

Many Pennsylvania schools rank better than those in the nation overall. "It's a good state to go to college. On the other hand, there's a delicate issue of historically black and religious colleges, some of which charge private school prices and are not well-endowed. They rely on students taking out federal loans, and don't have good incomes afterward," Karimzad said. This trend extends nationally.

University of the Sciences president Kathleen Mayes, a graduate of the college, worked in clinical pharmacy at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia before going into business. "I came out with debt, and many of our students do, but we're able to repay. It took me eight years to pay back."

The College Scorecard rankings "mean our students have good jobs starting out and they continue to the point where they can repay their loans."

Lafayette College president Alison Byerly said she was "delighted" that the school ranked in the top 10 in Pennsylvania, but admits an advantage in that "we're being compared to schools without engineering degrees."

"That said, as a parent of a child who's currently looking at colleges, you have to look at all the schools out there. As valuable as it is, it's not a guarantee of what they're going to earn."

Robert McBride, interim associate provost for enrollment management at St. Joseph's University, said: "The new data provide insights . . . but doesn't replace campus visits."

Haverford president Kim Benston said the school seeks to minimize loans, "which is reflected in our graduates' relatively low levels of debt as well as our innovative new debt-relief program for alumni."

Don Meyer, president of Valley Forge Christian College in Phoenixville, says the "challenge with these kinds of numbers is how they are interpreted. They are statistically accurate but omit broader institutional context."

With median salaries after loans of $24,903, his students graduate with loan balances of $27,000.

School majors include church vocational ministry, clergy, and missionary work. "Those salaries are going to be . . . much lower," Meyer says.

Historically black Lincoln University "helps students learn how to make a living, but also how to live a life," says Richard Green, interim president. In southern New Jersey, the College of New Jersey, in Ewing, came in second after Princeton in income after debt at $53,710; Rutgers-Camden was $51,836.

New Jersey's top-ranking public schools offer higher incomes on average than those in Pennsylvania, Karimzad said.

"The College of New Jersey is more selective with admissions, targeting the state's top high school students, while Pennsylvania's public schools tend to cast a wider net, so data for their schools includes a wider range of academic backgrounds," he said. "Penn State also attracts a larger proportion of out-of-state students than the public schools in New Jersey, which may influence results."

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