Ask Dr. Mike.

That’s what I always do.

Dr. Mike is Michael Cogan, associate vice president for records and institutional effectiveness, and whenever I want to know who St. Thomas is and how we stack up, I make up an excuse to have lunch with him and then pump him for information.

What’s been worrying me lately is how much do we contribute to the earning power of our graduates. Is the education we offer actually contributing in a tangible way to the individual’s future income? To society’s economic well-being?

Now I know that the value of an education to the person and to the community cannot be measured in dollar signs alone. But when tuition rises above $30,000 per year, there has to be enough future earning potential to pay for it.

Recently, higher education has been under attack on a variety of fronts for rising costs and poor performance. Various government support programs are being tied to better management of tuition increases. Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, in Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, argue that universities fail to provide the skills needed by the “knowledge economy.”  Charges of elitism have been levied at universities in this presidential primary season.

What answers do we have to these criticisms?

Since not everyone is able to drag Dr. Mike away from his computer for lunch, here are his answers to my questions.

Dr. Susan: As an economist, I’m well aware of the higher earnings and lower unemployment rates of college grads as opposed to those with a high school education. But still, our annual UST tuition would buy a hybrid SUV. (For you elitists out there, let’s go with the full four-year tab and make it an Aston Martin Vantage ragtop, 13 city and 18 hwy mpg.) Are we worth it? Can you give me some comparison data on salaries of our alums? The grapevine has it that you have some really good Census data.

Dr. Mike: Asking me if we are worth it would force me to provide a qualitative response and I’m not so sure about that! So let me give you a quantitative response and you can decide for yourself.

Sushant Khullar (Institutional Research) worked with the state Department of Employment and Economic Development to gather data on our students employed full-time in Minnesota after graduating in 2005. Sushant found those students earned $44,000 on average after one year. Additionally, Sushant found their salaries increased to $59,500 after four years. When you consider a recent Census report on education in the United States, these numbers compare favorably to the $39,886 that workers between the ages of 25 and 34 earn annually. OK, maybe a little qualitative.

Dr. Susan: I’m impressed. But a lot of our students are engineers and business majors. You’d expect that they would do okay in the market. What about our liberal arts majors? Are they able to compete for well-paying jobs, too?

Dr. Mike: We did run a comparative analysis with this same group across colleges/schools and we found the difference between the groups was not as profound as some believed. Undergraduate students graduating with a major assigned to the College of Arts and Sciences and working full-time earned $42,973 after one year and $58,892 after four years. Students with a major assigned to the Opus College of Business earned $44,796 and $60,441 while engineering alumni earned $56,453 and $66,419 respectively. Based on these data, I would say our liberal arts majors compete very well. Oops, there I go with a qualitative response again.

Dr. Susan: St. Thomas has always been an institution that values liberal arts and career preparation as well as both quantitative and qualitative responses. I’m glad to learn that the market agrees. That new car will just have to wait; our education is a great investment. Can I give you a lift somewhere?  That’s my 1997 Saturn parked over there.

Dr. Mike: You bet. I recently traded in my 1989 Camaro, so the Saturn seems like a step in the right direction!

One Response

  1. Kevin Griffith

    Interesting piece, but shouldn’t we be asking a different question? Instead of asking how we compare to other individuals in our age bracket, shouldn’t we be asking if at $45,000 or even $60,000 a year in salary can alumni afford/service $100k plus in debt after they graduate living in the Twin Cities? According to the New York Fed, student loan delinquencies are above 20%, which is twice the mortgage delinquency rate. Granted, St. Thomas has very good financial aid programs, but are they enough? Especially for those individuals who don’t get any help from their family and have to foot the bill themselves?