Recently “The Atlantic” published an article based on PayScale.com’s ranking of Montevallo among the 11 least valuable universities in the nation, stating that UM’s return on investment for out-of-state students is -$60,200. This means that, according to their research, not attending college would make you $30,000 richer than graduating.
Since the information was released, researchers, alumni and current members of the university have been debating it, referencing a number of problems with PayScale’s research methodology.
AroundLearning.com (a website created by a former teacher, institutional researcher and self-proclaimed student of public policy) pointed out nine mistakes with the website’s method.
First, the form and setting where the data is collected are not conducive to accuracy. PayScale is the largest private tracker of U.S. salaries, offering information on salary, benefits and compensation with one stipulation — the person seeking the information must first provide their own. This means all of the information is user generated, or crowd sourced.
This also means “the survey is typically filled out quickly in an attempt to get to the information of interest,” debated AroundLearning. “On top of that, and perhaps even more importantly, self-reported data on salary is just notoriously tricky.” The site then linked to a study revealing wide variations in actual versus reported salaries among its respondents.
Associate professor of art Kelly Wacker agreed that the analysis, based off 78 reports, was “flawed and based on limited and self-reported data” — data that, because of its nature, is impossible to check for absolute accuracy.
Another problem AroundLearning pointed to was that sites like PayScale oversample young workers new to the job market — “looking at the response pool for any college, typically only about 10-15 percent have 10 or more years of experience.” Furthermore, “Payscale logically but problematically excludes anyone with an advanced degree.” So, though the website claims to show projections for mid-career earnings, AroundLearning argued that “users of any online salary comparison tool are more likely to be young, white-collar workers.”
Alumnus Patrick Evans publicly commented on AL.com reporter Evan Belanger’s rehashing of the information, saying it was ridiculous for the study to choose out-of-state tuition for Montevallo because “it does not reflect the reality of the majority of Montevallo alums.” Kristine Mascetti, director of UM’s institutional research planning and assessment, said about five percent of students currently enrolled are from out of state.
Wacker disagreed with “The Atlantic”’s assessment on a more fundamental level, however, saying, “It is morally bankrupt to define value based solely on income generation.”
Collin Williams, associate professor of art, agreed, stating, “these kinds of rankings are essentially meaningless for many reasons but primarily because of the flawed assumption that money is the only measure of success.”
If the goal is to measure income, however, readers should expect tech schools to top the charts. “Slate” magazine reported on the findings, “Tech and engineering…tend to be the highest paid undergraduate majors. And because this ranking doesn’t include graduates who earn advanced degrees later on — so no doctors, lawyers, or MBAs — the advantage is naturally going to lie with the tech schools.”
Huffington Post stated, “It’s no surprise that with engineering majors ranking among the top for highest earning graduates, many of the schools whose alumni earn the most have robust engineering programs.”
Montevallo, on the other hand, “produces a high [percentage] of teachers. Thus, it’s not surprising that their earnings over 20 years aren’t as high as many other colleges,” said one comment on AL.com. “I consider this more of an indictment against low teacher salaries than against Montevallo.”
While several liberal arts colleges around the nation have been confronted with the allegation that a student’s earning power won’t increase enough to justify the cost of their tuition, Williams countered with insight into the value of a liberal arts education: “This kind of thinking is the cancer that is eating away at our culture, and the anecdote is an education that values personal growth, creative thinking, a breadth of knowledge and deeply rewarding intellectual development over dollar signs.”