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What is the value of a college degree?

4:23 AM, Sep 3, 2013   |    comments
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A degree from an elite public flagship university does not necessarily guarantee a higher-paying first job than one from a lesser-known school. Some two-year technical degrees produce higher starting salaries than four-year bachelor's degrees.

These are among the findings of research issued today linking college majors and the job market.

Another indication from the data: Despite widespread efforts to encourage more students to consider STEM fields - science, technology, engineering and math - certain science majors don't start out earning more than English majors.

"The findings challenge some conventional wisdom," says Mark Schneider, author of the report, released by College Measures, a non-profit organization that conducted the research. The study, which matches student records with state unemployment insurance wage data for graduates in Arkansas, Colorado, Virginia, Texas and Tennessee, adds to a growing body of research designed to help parents, students and policymakers assess the value of a college degree.

As more students are taking out bigger loans to finance their degrees, it's also a call for state and federal political leaders to demand more and better data.

"Until the data about potential earnings among graduates across the nation is unearthed and put to full use, many students will make poor decisions about schools and programs - decisions that will leave them saddled with debt and clamoring for a government bailout," Schneider says.

The report includes data only about recent graduates who are employed in the same state. It examines the average first-year earnings of students who graduated from 2006 through 2010 and loosely reflects findings in surveys of employers and recruiters.

A survey this spring by the non-profit National Association of Colleges and Employers found that engineering majors commanded the highest average salaries, followed by computer science and business majors. Those degrees also fared well in a survey last year by the Collegiate Employment Research Institute based at Michigan State University. The "surprise" finding, that study says, was that the strongest demand was for associate's rather than bachelor's degrees.

Among key findings in the College Measures report:

•Some short-term degrees command higher salaries than bachelor's degrees: In Texas, new graduates from technical associate's degree programs earned average salaries more than $11,000 higher than those for graduates with bachelor's degrees. In Colorado, graduates with associate degrees in applied sciences out-earned their counterparts with bachelor's degrees by more than $7,000 and in Virginia by more than $2,000.

•Higher tuition does not necessarily lead to higher salaries: In Colorado, first-year earnings for graduates of Colorado State University's flagship campus in Fort Collins averaged $36,777, slightly lower than the average $37,726 earned by graduates of CSU's Pueblo campus. Tuition at the Fort Collins campus this fall for state residents is $7,494, compared with $4,894 at Pueblo.

•The S in STEM may be oversold: In Virginia, technology engineering and math degrees commanded starting salaries ranging from $38,673 to $52,200. Degrees in biology averaged earnings of $27,893, lower than sociology ($30,044), psychology ($29,040) or English ($29,222). Average earnings for chemistry majors were only slightly higher, $31,070.

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By Mary Beth Marklein, USA TODAY

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