What People Want to Know About the Payoff of Different Degrees

December 09, 2015

T.J. Kirkpatrick
Anthony Carnevale of Georgetown U.’s Center on Education and the Workforce: "What the public wants to know is: Which one? That is their question. Which program of study should I take to get a good job?"
For years, Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce has produced data-rich reports on the job market for college graduates with various majors and levels of attainment. Lately, its work appears to be taking a tack even more oriented to consumers: Its most recent release is a college ranking based on the earnings of former students.

We caught up recently with the center’s director, the economist Anthony P. Carnevale. In addition to explaining the center’s evolution, Mr. Carnevale shared his take on the role college rankings should play in students’ searches and the one question he says people always have about the labor-market return on a degree. The following conversation has been edited and condensed.

Q. The center seems to be taking a more consumer-focused approach lately, with your effort to help minority students with college and career planning and your new rankings. What’s driving that?

A. To say that there was a plan is to overstate it. It’s the gradual evolution of this center. This idea of higher education making connections with labor markets, we came on the scene when it was still relatively new — a lot of the basic research hadn’t been done.

What we discovered was we had a very substantial response from the general public. You do something on certificates, and it hits the press. What the public wants to know is: Which one? That is their question. Which program of study should I take to get a good job?

When we did the bachelor’s-degree data it was just using the American Community Survey data, which was already available, and we had a huge response — way outside what we thought we’d get.

I don’t know how far we go with this consumer stuff. We’re starting to get more connection to counselors, but we’re not experts on counseling. We’re experts on the employment dimension to education.

Q. There are a lot of players trying to help prospective students and give them information. What does the center bring to the table that’s different from what anyone else is doing?

A. We use data to shed light on broad conclusions about what has labor-market value and what doesn’t. In the end, what’s required is administrative data. Now to some extent that’s what we’re doing in the states. We help the state systems build their information systems — they’re the ones who are going to build this out.

Q. It’s always a challenge to get this sort of information to the people it could actually help. How do you approach that?

A. This is about counseling. It’s about building capabilities to educate students, both in financial terms and in terms of choices they make for education and career purposes. The Gates Foundation is very much into student counseling as one of their change mechanisms. They’re going to go out and work with institutions that are going to experiment with this.

Our contribution will probably be to tell them how to use the labor-market data. There’s a naïve belief among economists and all of us who do this that the information itself has power. There’s a certain amount of truth to that, but it’s the use of the information that has effects.

Q. There are already a lot of college rankings out there. What made you decide to create another one?

A. Irresistible impulse. There’s new data, we’re gonna run it. We just took the earnings data and then corrected for the student ability.

This whole field just keeps heating up and heating up. We follow the data. Since we’re fairly practical, we’re basically after what our policy and practice questions are. And this question the public wants to know: Which one? Anything we do that says "which one" gets a lot of consumer attention.

Anybody who wants to get attention out there, you’ve got to answer one question over and over again: Which one?

We’ve thought about this, because it’s easy to do. At some point, it gets so easy that I don’t know if we should do it, because we could go one major at a time and have little booklets on majors and what happens, and then on what the career pathway is — what happens to history majors. You will never get in The New York Times, but a lot of people are going to be interested in what happens to history majors.

Q. Whom do you imagine using your rankings, and how do you hope that they would use them?

A. I would hope they’d be used to start a discussion. I would hope they would not be used for anybody to make a decision. And I would hope that for everybody else’s rankings.

You have to go to the horse’s mouth, go to the school that you’re considering, and go to the people who went there, and go to the people who are in different majors that you’re thinking about, and talk to them.

Beckie Supiano writes about college affordability, the job market for new graduates, and professional schools, among other things. Follow her on Twitter @becksup, or drop her a line at