A decade after entering school, undergraduate students who received federal aid to attend Liberty University, Lynchburg College, Randolph College and Sweet Briar College had a median salary slightly above the national average for other college entrants.
That’s according to the new version of the U.S. Department of Education College Scorecard released Sept. 12.
The interactive scorecard lists the earnings data for the first time and continues to feature graduation rates and average costs for colleges across the country, as it has since debuting in 2013. President Barack Obama’s administration backed off of earlier plans to include a ranking system in the scorecard and tie that ranking system to how the federal government distributes student financial aid.
Out of the four schools, Lynchburg College had the highest median salary after a decade, at $40,900, followed by Randolph at $38,700, Sweet Briar at $38,600 and Liberty at $36,300.
All of those are labeled “about average” by the Department of Education scorecard, which lists the national average as $34,343. Miller-Motte Technical College-Lynchburg, a for-profit school which awards two-year degrees and technical certificates, clocked in well below that at $21,000.
As of Thursday, that salary figure was the lowest listed out of any school in Virginia on the scorecard.
That may not mean much, given that some Virginia schools aren’t yet included, and that data for some others is incomplete. For example, as of Thursday, Central Virginia Community College was absent from the scorecard.
A U.S. Department of Education spokesperson said schools that award more certificate degrees than two- or four-year degrees were not included on the site at the launch but the department is working to incorporate them as quickly as possible.
Virginia University of Lynchburg was included in the scorecard, but salary after attending was listed as “data unavailable.”
The DOE spokesperson said earnings data comes from individual tax returns. However, data may not be available for a number of reasons, including, for example, not enough students entering a school in 2001 or 2002. Those students are the cohort represented by the median earnings on the score card.
Washington and Lee University in Lexington was the highest in Virginia at $77,600, far ahead of any other colleges in the state.
For each school represented, the scorecard shares a graph comparison of costs, graduation rates and earnings.
Average annual cost is defined as the net price for federal-aid recipients after all aid from the school, state or federal government.
Graduation rate refers to graduation within six years of first starting college. Students who transfer to another college for any reason count against the school, same as drop-outs. Transfer students don’t count toward their new school’s graduation rate either.
Virginia University of Lynchburg had the lowest average annual cost, at $14,647, but again the scorecard listed “data unavailable” for graduation rate. Miller-Motte had a high graduation rate, 68 percent, and an annual cost of $18,389.
The other four colleges clustered together on average annual cost with Lynchburg College the cheapest at $21,706 and Sweet Briar the most expensive at $24,611.
Prospective students should be aware that in some cases these schools have special discounts and scholarships available for Virginia students or Lynchburg-area students that are not available across the board.
Sweet Briar had the highest graduation rate of the group at 59 percent, and Liberty had the lowest at 48 percent. Nationwide, the average annual cost is $16,789, according to the scorecard, and the average graduation rate is 44 percent.
“Everyone should be able to find clear, reliable, open data on college affordability and value,” Obama said in a radio address earlier this month. "Many existing college rankings reward schools for spending more money and rejecting more students — at a time when America needs our colleges to focus on affordability and supporting all students who enroll."
Scoring the Scorecard
Robert Ritz, the vice president of financial aid and state relations at Liberty University, said he likes the look of the new scorecard and thinks it could be a good starting point for conversations, but he is also expecting questions from families who are confused by it.
The scorecard, he said, doesn’t make it easy to know what is behind the numbers. There’s no simple way to see, for example, that graduation rates listed are a couple years old (measured in 2012 and 2013). Ritz said he believes Liberty’s graduation rate has increased since then.
Besides that, he said, families may not grasp the limited usefulness of looking at median salaries of a school as a whole without thinking about the gaps between different majors and career paths. At Liberty, he said, many people chose careers in ministry, careers that frequently are not highly paid, but the school also produces students who choose careers such as engineering or nursing. The salary of a youth pastor who graduates from Liberty, he said, has no effect on the salary of the nursing major.
Randolph College President Bradley Bateman and Lynchburg College President Kenneth Garren had more pointed criticism of the new scorecard.
Both men spoke out publicly against the Obama administration’s earlier attempt at a scorecard rating system. Bateman wrote an Op-Ed in the New York Times and spoke for a National Public Radio report.
Garren poured himself into the effort, launching a major effort to speak with members of Congress such as U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-6th, and U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., about his objections to the plan.
Garren also spent time rallying other college presidents to the cause and traveled to meet with a DOE official to express his concerns and propose possible alternatives. He believes his efforts, especially the conversations with legislators, played a significant role in the plan's quiet defeat.
Both men are grateful the new scorecard does not contain that ranking system tied to federal aid but still don’t like what’s been put out.
Bateman said the scorecard’s emphasis on annual salary 10 years after attending is troubling for a couple reasons. First, he said, there’s no way for schools to double check the government’s salary calculations to know their fairness or accuracy.
Second, he said, the 10-year mark isn’t favorable for liberal-arts schools, because, he said, studies show arts-college graduates have lower incomes in the first 10 years out of school than graduates of vocationally focused programs, but that turns around later in life.
Lastly, he said he felt making annual salary one of three key points on the scorecard demeans people who chose to do important work in fields with low pay.
As a side note, he pointed out Randolph had a spike in students transferring away from what was then Randolph-Macon Woman’s College to be at other women’s colleges when it announced it was going co-ed.
That, he said, is reflected in the graduation numbers on the scorecard, but is a one-time event that will never happen again.
Garren said he sees no value in the new scorecard.
“They are really wasting money,” he said. "They are wasting it on something that doesn’t need to be done.”
He said he thinks the DOE scorecard dictates those three measures — cost, graduation rate, and annual salary — as being the most important numbers a student should use to evaluate a college.
The DOE, he said, should not be the judge of what is most important for a college student. He’d prefer that if the government is going to put together a scorecard it would share a wider range of data with a deeper level of detail.
At one point, he said, he proposed an alternative model that would allow students to create a custom ranking of colleges, based on their own highest priorities.
Mostly though, he’d just prefer the DOE didn’t attempt a scorecard at all, because he doesn’t think the agency has the ability to do a fair and accurate job with it.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.