The Hechinger Report is a national nonprofit newsroom that reports on one topic: education. Sign up for our weekly newsletters to get stories like this delivered directly to your inbox.

A bachelor’s degree in anthropology from Ithaca College costs $132,656, on average, and two years later, graduates are earning $19,227. That’s less than people in New York State earn with only a high school diploma and no college education.

A philosophy degree from Oberlin costs $142,220 and graduates two years later make an average of $18,154.

At Syracuse, a bachelor’s degree in studio and fine arts costs $137,888; two years later students who got one are earning $17,624, on average.

For more than 11 years, colleges have fought off attempts to hold them accountable for the most basic measure of student success: whether what graduates learn will provide them with the gainful employment they need to make it worth the price.

But now, in the age of data, information has quietly become available to students, families and consumer advocates that allows them to make those calculations themselves.

This new public data about cost and income means families “can vote with their feet,” said Michael Itzkowitz, senior fellow for higher education at the progressive think tank Third Way.

Related: Shopping for a major? Detailed salary info shows which majors pay off

Researchers on both ends of the political spectrum are already diving into the numbers and doing the math. They’ve found hundreds of programs they say result in no financial return at all — and not only at oft-panned for-profit institutions, but at public and nonprofit colleges and universities.

The conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation, for example, looked at new information about how much students borrow as a percentage of what they’re earning two years after graduation, which is the span of time now available from the federal government.

It says graduates of 1,234 programs at public universities and colleges — about 6 percent of those for which the information was reported — aren’t earning even half of what they owe.

New research by the Texas Public Policy Foundation found 1,234 programs at public universities nationwide whose graduates don’t earn enough to make the programs worth the money they borrowed for tuition. Credit: Iris Schneider for The Hechinger Report

Students who get master’s degrees in philosophy at San Francisco State, for instance, end up with $51,250 in debt and earn $12,961. Graduates of the bachelor’s program in visual and performing arts at Grambling State borrowed an average of $36,858 and make $9,375, and of the bachelor’s program in radio, television and digital communication at Chicago State, $35,500 for $15,817 in earnings.

Third Way identified 5,989 public, private nonprofit and private for-profit college and university programs for which it said there is no financial return on the investment in tuition based on how long it takes graduates to earn the money back. That’s about 16 percent of the programs for which the data was available.

Based on students’ incomes and what they paid for college, it found that while about half will recoup their costs within five years, nearly a quarter will take 20 years or more. Of those, more than half will never make enough to cover what they spent.

Related: From Google ads to NFL sponsorships: Colleges throw billions at marketing themselves to attract students

“There are a lot of diamonds in the rough — really good programs at what we might think of as not-so-great schools — and then there are laggard programs that are not doing well by their students, even at high-performing schools,” said Andrew Gillen, a senior policy analyst at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

Yet another think tank, the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity, has used the data to conclude that more than a quarter of programs — including most of those in art, music, philosophy religion and psychology — leave students financially worse off than if they’d never enrolled. That analysis looked at earnings not only after two years, but over a graduate’s lifetime, by including additional information collected by the Census Bureau.

Efforts began at the outset of the Obama administration to have the federal government calculate whether students found the gainful employment they needed to repay the money they borrowed and cut off funding for programs in which they didn’t. The formula was based on how much graduates were earning three years after getting a degree.

“At some point it does become the university’s obligation to stop offering programs without the earnings potential necessary to repay the debt.”

Andrew Gillen, senior policy analyst, Texas Public Policy Foundation

Colleges and universities stalled and sued, and while a version of the rule was briefly in effect, it was ended by the Trump administration.

“There was huge pushback from the higher education lobby, saying even the notion of using outcomes is preposterous — that what they do is rainbows and unicorns and you can’t measure it,” said Beth Akers, a labor economist and senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who has watched this long back and forth. “It was sort of ridiculous.”

This let schools with dubious financial success rates continue receiving taxpayer money while turning out students whose income is too low to repay their debts.

Between 300,000 and 460,000 students per year defaulted on their loans from 2016 to 2018, according to the U.S. Department of Education; 5.3 million defaulters now owe $116.6 billion. If that money is never recovered, since it was borrowed from the federal government, most of it gets added to the national debt. Defaulters face the added costs of debt collection and ruined credit scores, and their tax refunds and Social Security payments can be seized.

Related: College degree doesn’t pay off as well for first-generation grads

“At some point it does become the university’s obligation to stop offering programs without the earnings potential necessary to repay the debt,” said Gillen.

The fact that data about debt and earnings, by program, emerged while lobbyists and regulators were busy arguing about the gainful employment rule was “a happy accident,” said Akers, author of the book “Making College Pay: An Economist Explains How to Make a Smart Bet on Higher Education,” which shows people how to calculate the return on investment of programs.

“It became this opportunity for both researchers and individuals to look at value,” she said.

Information about debt incurred for specific programs, rather than averaged among every student at an institution, became available for the first time in 2019. Attention to it was largely diverted by the pandemic, however, consumer advocates say.

To figure out how much money graduates are likely to make with a particular major at a given institution, consumers can select a college or university on the Department of Education’s College Scorecard website, then choose a field of study.

A bachelor’s degree in anthropology from Ithaca College costs $132,656, on average, and two years later, graduates are earning $19,227. That’s roughly $5,000 a year less than people in New York State with only a high school diploma and no college education. Credit: J. Maughn/Flickr 

There are some limitations to the data that’s available. For example, it covers only students who received federal grants and loans — 77 percent of all students — since those are the ones the government tracks.

At Ithaca, one of the institutions singled out in the Third Way data, there were 14 anthropology graduates whose salaries were included in the federal figures to determine average earnings. “That seems to me to be a pretty small sample size from which to draw any conclusions,” said Ithaca spokesman Dave Maley.

Students who are unemployed two years after earning their degrees, including any who are in graduate or professional school, aren’t counted.

Bachelor’s degree programs in higher-paying fields such as science, engineering and health show quick returns almost universally, while students who major in drama, dance and religion are among the most likely to be earning little more than high school graduates who never went to college.

Some other examples from the Third Way analysis: An English language and literature degree from Whitman College costs $130,508 and graduates earn $18,868 two years later; a visual and performing arts degree from the Berklee College of Music costs $193,700 with a subsequent income of $16,786; a music degree from the Manhattan School of Music costs $183,808 and grads make $13,393; and a degree in dance from New York University costs $169,588 and students two years later earn $16,478.

Related: Colleges fight attempts to stop them from withholding transcripts over unpaid bills

There are other advantages to a higher education than financial, Itzkowitz noted. “But people should at least go into it with an understanding of how much they’re paying for that credential and whether it’s likely to pay off, in the short term or the long term.”

The question is whether students will seek out this information. Research suggests that up until now they generally haven’t.

“Unfortunately it’s going to take a while before it gets to the point that high school students are talking about it, college guidebooks are including it, guidance counselors are talking about it,” said Gillen.

New research by the Texas Public Policy Foundation found 1,234 programs at public universities nationwide whose graduates don’t earn enough to make the programs worth the money they borrowed for tuition. Credit: Paras Griffin/Getty Images

Surveys at Rutgers and New York University have found that students overestimate their salary prospects. And only 13 percent of community college students in a survey by scholars at Stanford and the universities of Michigan, Pennsylvania and California at Irvine could correctly rank four general categories of majors by salary.

“The rhetoric from our political and cultural leaders has been that college is worth it at any cost, and that a degree is a degree, so all you have to think about is getting across the finish line,” said Akers. “We have not encouraged people to shop and be critical consumers of higher education. I hope that changes.”

This story about the cost of college was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.

The Hechinger Report provides in-depth, fact-based, unbiased reporting on education that is free to all readers. But that doesn't mean it's free to produce. Our work keeps educators and the public informed about pressing issues at schools and on campuses throughout the country. We tell the whole story, even when the details are inconvenient. Help us keep doing that.

Join us today.

Jon Marcus writes and edits stories about, and helps plan coverage of, higher education. A former magazine editor, he has written for The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Wired, Medium.com...

Letters to the Editor

3 Letters

At The Hechinger Report, we publish thoughtful letters from readers that contribute to the ongoing discussion about the education topics we cover. Please read our guidelines for more information.

By submitting your name, you grant us permission to publish it with your letter. We will never publish your email. You must fill out all fields to submit a letter.

  1. Wow, this article and the data mining within it seems like it’s up to date but it really overlooks so many points. How is a dancer’s annual income calculated, I’m inspired to ask? By a single salary point earned from dancing in a company? But that’s not at all how a dancer’s life or earning potential is structured. The article specifically targets, as in a bullseye, areas of study that are uniquely structured, freelance and/or project-based (yes, even anthropologists) and are neither earned nor calculated in a typical salary grid. So, let’s wipe anthropology-lovers and passionate artists off the grid, since their W-2’s don’t show that their education was worth it? Irresponsibly reported, prejudiced, and just plain ignorant. I suggest taking a look at the SNAAP reports of earnings and jobs in the arts, performing and visual, if you’re going to fully deal with this question of whether a student should go to college only for the purpose of getting a job, or whether a student should go to college to find their interests, their depth, their potential to look toward a future comprised of many of his/her/their strengths.

  2. My son and I did the numbers on a college degree several years ago. This is simply confirmation bias that the ROI for a degree is not financially viable. On the other hand, if you do some deep research into crypto currencies and stay on top of your high risk investments, the ROI may become the tuition that you didn’t have and more. That’s where we are today in these desperate times.

  3. Before eliminating programs based on average cost/benefits, educators, and all of us, would do well to slow down and approach this question from a broader and deeper perspective. There is a need for students (and parents/caregivers) to be informed as well by research that reflects the range of salaries earned by graduates in their chosen field of study. Factors like motivation, level of passion, readiness to learn in the major and college setting, as well as Social Emotional Learning competencies like resilience, growth mindset, “agency”, and even whether the student has what respected researchers have measured – having not just a career goal but a “transcendent goal” to do good for the world, as top predictors of academic and life success. I’m a parent, and and thrilled my local community college is teaching “humanities” as part of its curriculum to my daughter, regardless of whether she pursues an advanced college degree. We need our children to learn much more in college than just how to make the most money.

Submit a letter

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *