Administration

A College System Measures How Low-Paying Degrees Serve the Public Good

August 05, 2015

Everyone, it seems, is trying to measure the value of a college degree. For many elected officials in the states, that amount boils down to a fairly simple number: The earnings of the person who received that credential.

But while higher-education officials often tout the salary bonus conferred by a bachelor’s degree, for instance, many of those same officials worry about overrelying on wages as the only way to demonstrate the value of a college education.

Christina E. Whitfield, vice chancellor for research and analysis at the Kentucky Community and Technical College System, is taking a new approach. She has designed a "social-utility index" to calculate the social good of degree programs that lead to low-paying jobs that may nevertheless be important to communities.

Ms. Whitfield explained her efforts here on Tuesday at the annual policy meeting of the State Higher Education Executive Officers. The goal, she said, is to offer a more-nuanced approach when institutions and policy makers consider which programs to continue or cut.

Her measurements rely on a survey by PayScale, a company that collects information on salaries and other workplace benefits. Among other things, the PayScale survey asks employees in a range of fields, such as clergy members and radiation-therapy workers, to identify which occupations provide the most personal meaning to their practitioners.

Ms. Whitfield also considers how important an industry is to a region. Activities related to coal mining and distilleries, for example, are more concentrated in Kentucky than in other parts of the country.

And she looks at whether particular degree programs enroll a high percentage of minority students or attract a "nontraditional" gender mix, such as women in heavy-machinery maintenance or men in nursing.

In the end, her list of the careers with the most social utility comes as no surprise. It includes firefighters, emergency medical technicians, child-care workers, and home health aides. But those fields are rarely mentioned by college presidents as being the most important on their campuses as destinations for their graduates.

"In not all cases," Ms. Whitfield said, "is income the most valuable way to measure outcomes."

Eric Kelderman writes about money and accountability in higher education, including such areas as state policy, accreditation, and legal affairs. You can find him on Twitter @etkeld, or email him at eric.kelderman@chronicle.com.