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Which College Graduates Make the Most?

Which College Graduates Make the Most?


On November 20, 2019, the Department of Education released its long-awaited update to the College Scorecard, revealing median debt, earnings and other data for graduates of specific programs of the represented schools. The Wall Street Journal was given an exclusive look at the data before publication, and provides some comparisons of the data among schools and a handy tool for sorting the dataset by school, degree level and degree type to show the median debt for graduates and median income level the first year after graduating. 

I commend the Department for providing more consumer transparency. As I have written previously, the Scorecard will only be relevant when it posts data on all students, not just students using Federal Student loans. And even then, there are reasons why some institutions have dramatically different data. In this update, the Department has published both graduate and undergraduate data, some of which is revealing. For example, the Journal writes that dentists graduating from New York University had a median debt of $387,660 but only earned $69,600 in their first year after graduation. Dr. Robert Kelchen, a professor at Seton Hall, reports that the highest earners were dentists  graduating from Ohio State with a first-year salary of $231,200 and debt of $173,309. While there may be regional differences why NYU grads earn less than OSU grads one year after graduation, the difference in debt is likely due to one being private and the other public.

Graduates of law schools appear to have a very different ratio of debt to starting salary, particularly for less elite programs. A list of 20 law schools circulating on Twitter showed a median debt range from $103,000 – $190,000 with most of the programs at the $160,000 debt level and median salaries ranging from $35,000 – $180,000, with most programs salaried from  $35,000 – $60,000. Unsurprisingly, Brian Tamanaha’s 2012 book, Failing Law Schools, noted the mismatch between the cost of a law school education and starting salaries. In 2012, he cited the average debt amount for graduates at $100,000 and it now appears much higher.

An odd finding from the Scorecard data release was that the data uses debt loads for students graduating in 2016 and 2017 and shows earnings for those graduating in 2015 and 2016. While I’m sure the Department wanted to publish the most recent information possible, using the same two years would arguably have been more of an apples-to-apples approach than using an earlier year for one data set and a later one for the other. The Department stated that it plans to add additional years over time rather than just report earnings the first year after graduation.

I did a quick review of our data from APUS and had more questions than answers.  One of my findings was that our degree programs are grouped by CIP code and in some cases, that can lead to confusion. For example, the Scorecard reports that we have several mechanical engineering programs. APUS does not offer such programs but does offer several programs in Space Studies which are aggregated under the same CIP code. As I’ve written before, when over 70% of your graduates do not borrow money from federal loan programs because your tuition is affordable and often paid by their employer, seeing loan balances for every program is a little disconcerting. 

All of APUS’s programs are 100% online, so seeing median debt numbers that exceed the cost of tuition and fees for undergraduate and tuition, books and fees for graduate programs indicates that some of those students are borrowing additional funds to cover some or all of their living expenses.  For the most part, we achieved good ratios of median earnings to borrowings, but there are some programs that I will ask our staff to review in greater depth.

All told, while the updated Scorecard does a fair job with matching median debt with median earnings of graduates, it doesn’t account for debt a student might have accumulated from a previous degree or while earning credits transferred to your institution before completing their degree there.  Debt or no debt, it’s becoming increasingly obvious to many that high tuition and high loans are generally a toxic combination. I’m sure there will be much written about this in the weeks ahead and I may offer additional insights on data about APUS programs.



Wally Boston Dr. Wallace E. Boston was appointed President and Chief Executive Officer of American Public University System (APUS) and its parent company, American Public Education, Inc. (APEI) in July 2004. He joined APUS as its Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer in 2002. In September 2019, Dr. Boston retired as CEO of APEI and retired as APUS President in August 2020. Dr. Boston guided APUS through its successful initial accreditation with the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association in 2006 and ten-year reaccreditation in 2011. In November 2007, he led APEI to an initial public offering on the NASDAQ Exchange. For four years from 2009 through 2012, APEI was ranked in Forbes' Top 10 list of America's Best Small Public Companies. During his tenure as president, APUS grew to over 85,000 students, 200 degree and certificate programs, and approximately 100,000 alumni. While serving as APEI CEO and APUS President, Dr. Boston was a board member of APEI, APUS, Hondros College of Nursing, and Fidelis, Inc. Dr. Boston continues to serve as a member of the Board of Advisors of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA), a member of the Board of Overseers of the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, and as a member of the board of New Horizons Worldwide. He has authored and co-authored papers on the topic of online post-secondary student retention, and is a frequent speaker on the impact of technology on higher education. Dr. Boston is a past Treasurer of the Board of Trustees of the McDonogh School, a private K-12 school in Baltimore. In his career prior to APEI and APUS, Dr. Boston served as either CFO, COO, or CEO of Meridian Healthcare, Manor Healthcare, Neighborcare Pharmacies, and Sun Healthcare Group. Dr. Boston is a Certified Public Accountant, Certified Management Accountant, and Chartered Global Management Accountant. He earned an A.B. degree in History from Duke University, an MBA in Marketing and Accounting from Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business Administration, and a Doctorate in Higher Education Management from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. In 2008, the Board of Trustees of APUS awarded him a Doctorate in Business Administration, honoris causa, and, in April 2017, also bestowed him with the title President Emeritus. In August 2020, the Board of Trustees of APUS appointed him Trustee Emeritus. In November 2020, the Board of Trustees announced that the APUS School of Business would be renamed the Dr. Wallace E Boston School of Business in recognition of Dr. Boston's service to the university. Dr. Boston lives with his family in Austin, Texas.


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