Well-Paid (or Meaningful) Work as a Measure of Higher Education

Well, my vow not to parse any more college rankings lasted about five weeks. Right up until… wait for it…


PayScale logoLast week the New York Times highlighted a website called PayScale.com, which released its annual ranking of just over a thousand American colleges and universities. Here’s the hook: PayScale doesn’t look at reputation (U.S. News) or social mobility and contributions to society (Washington Monthly), but simply ranks colleges by the median mid-career salary of whichever of its graduates have registered with PayScale and completed its employee survey. As the Times noted, “There’s a fairly high correlation between the reputation and selectivity-weighted rankings of U.S. News and the future earnings measures of PayScale,” but some prestigious national liberal arts colleges (especially women’s colleges) and regional universities ranked highly by U.S. News come off as being rather mediocre according to PayScale.

Now, much as I’d like to celebrate any system that flips U.S. News on its head, PayScale has obvious problems as well. It privileges schools that churn out engineering and health science majors. There’s an enormous variety in sample sizes, particularly among smaller liberal arts colleges (which have a “confidence interval” of a whopping ±10%, according to the PayScale methodology page). The salary data doesn’t seem to be adjusted for cost of living — of the top 25 schools, only four aren’t located in California or the Northeast.

And then there’s the fundamental objection that none of this measures what’s at the heart of a liberal arts education, but I’ll hold onto that for a moment.

Simply for the sake of completeness… Since I’ve examined several other ranking systems to see how my employer and its peers in the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities (CCCU) come off, I might as well do it with PayScale.

Only 61 of the CCCU’s 116 American members had enough PayScale responses to show up in the rankings. But I suspect that adding those omissions wouldn’t change the overall impression: that Christian colleges don’t compare favorably to their public and private competitors when judged solely by what their alumni are earning ten years out from graduation. Consider:

  • Entrance to LeTourneau University
    LeTourneau University, in Longview, TX – Creative Commons (Billy Hathorn)

    Only two of its members crack the top 20% of the table: Westmont (#133) and Wheaton (#209)

  • Eight more manage to get into the second quintile, a group that includes schools that do well by most any measure (Gordon, Seattle Pacific, Whitworth), but also includes some surprises: Concordia-Irvine (#286, though that’s based on only 63 graduates completing the PayScale survey), Olivet Nazarene (#342), Lipscomb (#355), and LeTourneau (#359 — which topped all CCCU schools, as far as I can tell, in PayScale’s “return on investment” measure from 2013).
  • Then 18% of the CCCU schools ranked are in the middling third quintile (including #451 Calvin, #497 Messiah, and #544 Taylor — I really wonder about the effect of location here…) and almost a quarter in the next 20% range (including #745 Bethel).
  • But the single largest group of CCCU members — 25 out of the 61 — languishes in the bottom quintile of the schools ranked by PayScale. (Of these, #824 Houghton is probably best known, but #992 College of the Ozarks is most interesting, given how highly it’s rated by other services — #19 in Washington Monthly‘s baccalaureate college table for 2013 — because students at “Hard Work U” graduate without debt.)

But lest any CCCU president, professor, alum, or student feel too bad about the product education provided/received by/through Christian colleges…

Edmundson, Why Teach?Let’s get back to the most serious pitfall of the PayScale approach: namely, that it fails to measure what’s most important about a liberal arts education. English professor Mark Edmundson made that case in the Times article:

People are desperate to measure something, so they seize on the wrong things…. I’m not against people making a living or prospering. But if the objective of an education is to “know yourself,” it’s going to be hard to measure that….

Self-realization doesn’t just mean sitting around discussing Plato and Socrates… It means figuring out what job or profession would I be best at and what I would enjoy. Too many people are just aiming for a high salary. They struggle through college, they don’t like their classes, they don’t like their job and they end up failing. If they had taken the time to discover themselves, they might have ended up happy and prosperous.

Now, I would tweak this (using Frederick Buechner’s language) and contend that vocation is found at the intersection of “what I would enjoy” and what the world needs. Which makes very interesting one other metric provided by PayScale…

As part of its employee survey (which I took — turns out that I’m in the 65th percentile of pay for college professors with my training and experience, so the decent thing to do would probably be to stop whining about higher education…) respondents are asked the loaded question, Does your work make the world a better place? If they answer “Very much so” or simply “Yes,” then the college reaps the benefits in the final column of the table: “% with High Job Meaning.”

Now, this appears to have no bearing whatsoever on the way schools are actually ranked. But because the data (however fragmentary) are included, Christian college folk might find some reassurance. For while CCCU members represent only 5.9% of the schools with sufficient data in this category, they account for:

  • 13.5% of the schools with 70% or more of its graduates expressing “High Job Meaning” (5 of 37)
  • 14.2% of the schools with 65% or higher (14 of 98)
  • 13.9% of the schools with 60% or higher (33 of 236)

Houghton College is the only CCCU member below 50% in this category, and its 45% (from a sample size of only 52) outperforms ten schools whose graduates reported mid-career median salaries of $100,000 or more to PayScale (ahem, Carleton). In fact, only four schools with such robust earnings numbers had at least two-thirds of their graduates report “High Job Meaning”: the service academies for the Air Force, Navy, and Army, and the Virginia Military Institute. Three times as many CCCU schools reached that plateau, and only two had mid-career salary numbers greater than $70,000:

CCCU Member

% “High Job Meaning”

Median Starting Salary

Median Mid-Career Salary

1t. Geneva




1t. Univ. of Mary Hardin-Baylor




3. Spring Arbor




4t. MidAmerica Nazarene




4t. Nyack




6. Charleston Southern




7. Bethel (MN)




8. Houston Baptist




9t. Colorado Christian




9t. Lee




9t. Olivet Nazarene




9t. Southeastern




Logo of Geneva CollegeThe easy hypothesis here is that Christian colleges tend to graduate disproportionate numbers of students who go into relatively low-paying ministry and service professions. When I saw Bethel ranked so high, I immediately thought of the fact that the majority of our department’s graduates work in education, nonprofits, or pastoral ministry, where their pay probably isn’t commensurate with their abilities, but it’s easy to see how they might answer “Very much so” when asked if they’re making the world a “better place.”

I don’t know the tradition well enough to suggest an explanation, but it’s certainly interesting to note that five of the twelve schools listed above (Lee, Nyack, Southeastern, and the two Nazarene schools) were founded by churches in the Holiness-Pentecostal tradition. Three more Nazarene institutions (Southern, Trevecca, and Point Loma) come in at 63-64%, as does Evangel, an Assemblies of God school.

But there’s a flip side to that no doubt facile argument: Perhaps we in Christian colleges talk so much about making work purposeful that students, even years out from graduation, feel pressured to give a positive response to such a question. Bethel graduates will have had three or four years in which to internalize that “We are salt and light” and “We are world-changers” (two of our “core values”), and then several years of employment in which to try to reconcile such platitudes with the often-frustrating realities of employment (or under- or unemployment).

If 68% of them still affirm that their work makes a positive difference in the world, does that reflect deep-seated denial on their part or that they’ve taken to heart the Pietist ideal of doing everything, even (especially?) low-paying jobs, “for God’s glory and neighbor’s good”?

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