College Scorecard Reveals Earnings Data

by Rachel Zinn
September 14, 2015

Average earnings for former students of most American colleges and universities are now just a few mouse clicks away, on the revised College Scorecard website from the U.S. Department of Education (ED).

There's a lot of nuance behind the numbers and some important upgrades are in the works, but the new tool provides a major step forward for helping prospective students and educators understand how college helps prepare people for careers.

WDQC and its partner organizations have long advocated for public support of reliable, comparable information on employment outcomes for all postsecondary programs. In comments submitted February 2015, we advised ED to include labor market outcomes in its proposed college ratings system, which has since evolved into expanded college information tools.

The College Scorecard describes earnings in two ways. First, it shows what percent of former students are earning more than $25,000 annually, six years after enrollment. That number approximates annual earnings for the average high school graduate, and this metric is designed to indicate whether the college provides any earnings bump. Second, the College Scorecard shows median earnings 10 years after enrollment.

The earnings outcomes are calculated by matching students' federal financial cash aid data, collected by ED, with tax records managed by the U.S. Department of the Treasury. 

technical paper on the scorecard website notes that the earnings data:

  • Include only students getting federal grants or loans. Ideally the data would include all students, but this information is readily available and a good place to start.
  • Include all students who enrolled in a school, regardless of whether they attained a degree or other credential.
  • Exclude the earnings of students who are still enrolled in school (based on federal loan records).

The College Scorecard is getting a lot of attention in the media, and amongst our partners, some of whom have already analyzed the data for trends. Detailed data sets are available as downloads from the ED website.

A problematic limitation of the College Scorecard is that earnings are available only by institution, not by program. Earnings can vary a lot by program of study within a school, so WDQC is pleased to see that ED stated, in a policy paper, that it is working on being able to publish outcomes by program. 

WDQC also supports the Administration in taking a broad view of the importance of labor market outcomes across workforce and education programs. The policy paper describes several related Administration efforts, including implementation of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) and grants for community colleges that support cooperation with employers. Though earnings is certainly not the only way to judge the value of a college education, this information is helpful for students and families making important decisions.

In the coming days, WDQC will work closely with the Postsecondary Data Collaborative and other partners to review the new tools and provide comments as appropriate. The Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP) released a statement on the College Scorecard and other postsecondary developments today, and CLASP posted about the Scorecard with additional recommendations to improve the tool.