Nedda Gilbert, MSW, Educational Consultant, and Author
This is one of those maddeningly tough questions to answer because there are so many variables. I believe the article you are referring to presented data from a recently released federal government report on college earnings called the College Scorecard, collegescorecard.ed.gov. One of the ways they filtered their results may have led you to believe you're unlikely to benefit economically from a liberal arts college degree. That's not necessarily so. (More on that point below.)
Although this data provides a fresh look at the relative performance of colleges as it relates to salary, it has an agenda of sorts. I'm not getting into politics here, but the College Scorecard is an Obama initiative. Once you know that, some of the why and how they did things makes more sense. The rankings and methodologies used were designed to shed light on first-generation and low-income families who may be most at risk of taking on high student debt and then having little to show for it. I believe one of the goals of the College Scorecard was to protect this group of vulnerable students. In this way, the study has put a very public spotlight on those colleges offering little value and taking advantage of this population. There may be greater accountability from now on. And that's a good thing.
But because Obama's Scorecard (as some are calling it), had an agenda of sorts, there are limits to how useful the data may be to a broad range of students. And this may mean you. Critics of the College Scorecard say it has some serious flaws and drawbacks.
To begin with, only students who receive federal financial aid were included in the study. That leaves out a significant chunk of kids and their salaries from the data. In fact, only colleges that participate in the title IV federal financial aid program were included in the Scorecard study. That actually means not only a bunch of students were excluded, but entire colleges as well - many of them religion based. This is a huge weakness in the data presented. Given the population it studied, the report also intensely focuses on the issue of loan repayments, defaults and how well students students who receive financial aid do. But why some students fail to pay back student loans and struggle with salary success warrants much deeper analysis than this report provides.
The Scorecard study also did not factor in whether a student graduated or not. This too makes the data wonky. Another issue is that there was significant inaccuracy in reporting earnings for a branch campus system like Penn State, University of Wisconsin, or University of Maryland. Earnings were only reported for the main campus/system. Finally, the most serious omission is that the report did not segment earnings by degree and major. So colleges with a lot of engineering and nursing students (they earn the highest starting salaries) got a boost in their rankings from all those top earners.
As for your noting that the Ivies sit at the top of the heap, you are correct. The top five earners are: Harvard, MIT (as selective as, but not an Ivy), Stanford, University of Pennsylvania and Princeton. But I think the rankings for this particular group of schools just reflect common sense. If you got into one of these colleges, you are among the nations best and brightest. Employers understandably want to hire brilliant applicants and employees. But there are many paths to success and prosperity. An Ivy League degree is hardly the only one. And of course, there is that saying: "A' students wind up working for "C" students. The fact that you may not attend an elite college does not condemn you to a lifetime of low earnings. As time goes by, where you went to school and your academic achievements have far less relevance. What matters more are interpersonal characteristics: character, outlook, creativity, work ethic, emotional intelligence, the ability to overcome obstacles, get along with others - this is why C students tend to do just fine and sometimes better than their Ivy educated peers.
To address your impression that a sizable number of college grads only earn what a high school graduate does, there was some data where in some cases, this was so, but the College Scorecard report actually states something of the opposite. In a big heading on their website: "BY THE NUMBERS," they declare, "On average, college graduates earn $1 million MORE over their lifetimes than high school graduates." That said, the data they present, and how they slice and dice it is very confusing, so I wanted to share with you that this is one of their main conclusions. I also want to add that many employers will not hire someone lacking a college degree. Not having that degree can be a serious barrier to entry.
My feeling is that you may want to take the College Scorecard with a grain of salt, and in context with many other rankings. You will still need to do your homework on what college is best for you, and consider a wide range of variables which this report does not address. If salary is of primary importance, you may want to go to www.payscale.com and review their 2015-2106 college salary report as well. This database provides a a lot of helpful information, and even segments by 2 year colleges and highest paying bachelors degrees. This is particularly applicable to your college planning. Since salary is closely tied to major, you may want to link your course of study to a particular industry. On the other hand, If you just want to nurture your inner academic, then study philosophy or art history.
I hope the above helped you sort out some confusing issues and data. Good luck!