College has increasingly become a means to an end. More than ever, prospective students making their college choice may be prioritizing financial considerations and future career prospects over other factors, experts say, because of soaring higher education costs and the current economic hardships caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
Recent research suggests it is wise to consider a school’s track record for its graduates’ average earnings and student loan debt when making a college choice, as one’s alma mater can greatly influence these outcomes.
College graduates who received identical degrees in the same field of study earned vastly different salaries depending upon which college they attended, according to a report by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. Its findings, published in October, note that first-year earnings for the same degree can vary by as much as nearly $80,000.
“Now seeing what a huge impact something like this pandemic can have, it is more important than ever that one factor students consider before choosing a college and choosing a major at that college, is how much money they’re going to make when they get out,” says Martin Van Der Werf, co-author of the report and associate director of editorial and postsecondary policy at Georgetown CEW.
“There’s a wide range of salary ranges based on where you go to college, and it may not be the deciding factor in where you go to school, but since this information is out there, we think it should be at least a factor in a college choice,” he says.
The report found that in general, students who graduate from more selective colleges with familiar names typically go on to have higher earnings. Its authors note, however, that this isn’t always the case. The data shows a graduate who received a bachelor’s degree in business administration, management and operations from Harvard University in Massachusetts, for example, earned less on average the first year after college than a student who received a bachelor of applied science in energy management from Bismarck State College in North Dakota.
When considering a college’s cost along with the typical earnings and debt outcomes of its graduates, prospective students should note that a more expensive school may ultimately lead to higher earnings over the course of their career, Van Der Werf says.
An engineer, for example, making the choice between an inexpensive public school and an expensive private college should consider the typical earnings of graduates from both colleges. Van Der Werf says the upfront cost of a more expensive school could end up paying for itself many times over if graduates significantly out-earn those of a school charging lower tuition.
[Read: Is College Worth the Cost?]
The data for the Georgetown CEW research was provided by the U.S. Department of Education on a public platform called the College Scorecard. Students and families can also access this information, and experts suggest they do their own research before making a college decision to learn more about an institution’s earnings and debt outcomes.
This information comes with a few caveats. For one, geographic location can affect earnings data, according to Travis Hornsby, founder of Student Loan Planner, a website that offers advice from certified financial professionals.
“The median earnings net of debt make states at the bottom of the pile look pretty good when adjusted for living cost. Where the student wants to live is also very important to think about when determining where they go to school,” Hornsby wrote in an email.
He also says students should ask colleges directly for more recent outcomes data, as the College Scorecard information can be outdated. For example, the most recent data currently available on the College Scorecard reflects the earnings of the classes of 2016 and 2017.
Beyond playing a role in a student’s future earnings, college choice can affect a student’s career opportunities. Paul McDonald, senior executive director at Robert Half, a human resources consulting firm based in California, says a candidate’s college experience matters — especially in certain career fields — but it isn’t everything.
“For certain industries, accounting and finance for example, a candidate’s college degree can play more of a role in the hiring process. That said, alma mater may get you the audition, but it doesn’t mean it’s going to get you the job,” McDonald wrote in an email.
“Hiring managers want to know that a new grad has gotten the most out of their educational institution and built a solid foundation for their career. They will also consider internships and any relevant work experience as well as extracurriculars when considering a candidate,” McDonald says.
He also advises prospective students to take into account a school’s alumni network and career advising resources when choosing a college.
Ultimately, students must balance these financial and career factors with their individual passions and interests, Van Der Werf says. After weighing all of these considerations, students should have a clear idea of their goals to make the best decision.
“College is the biggest training system for careers in the country and a college credential is your ticket into a career,” Van Der Werf says. “Having said all of that, it’s really important that you have an idea of what you want to do. Finding your way through college and taking seven or eight years to get a bachelor’s degree — most of us don’t have the time or the money to do that anymore.”
Trying to fund your education? Get tips and more in the U.S. News Paying for College center.
More from U.S. News