What If You Knew How Much Your College Program Would Cost — and How Much It Would Enable You to Earn?

Anthony P. Carnevale
Sep 20 · 3 min read

By Anthony P. Carnevale

Deciding whether and where to go to college, and what to study when you get there, could be one of the most significant and costly decisions of your life. But most people make this decision without understanding how much they will pay and what they will get in return for their investment.

Colleges are very expensive. During the 2017–18 academic year, it cost an average of $50,300 to go to a private university and $24,300 for a public university. While colleges tell prospective students in glowing terms what to expect while attending, unfortunately they share very little about the job opportunities and salary range they can expect after graduation.

People have become accustomed to doing research before making purchases. They consult Zillow and Redfin for houses, Edmunds and Kelley Blue Book for cars, and Expedia and Kayak for travel. Why shouldn’t families be able to comparison shop for colleges?

Of course, not all benefits of a college education — such as the friends and mentors students find — are tangible. But college is a major investment that should be subject to as many metrics as possible.

A measurement system started taking shape a few years ago when the Obama administration introduced the College Scorecard, an online tool with information about college costs and graduates’ salaries. The scorecard was a step in the right direction, but it didn’t address the variations among programs at the same college or the differences in outcomes for students with the same major at different colleges. That’s crucial because a college major has a greater influence on earnings than the college where a student obtained it.

In March, President Trump ordered the Education Department to expand the College Scorecard with program-level data for each certificate, degree, and professional program. Momentum is also building in Congress. Both houses are considering legislation, the College Transparency Act, through which post-college earnings would be reported even for students who did not receive federal financial aid.

Unbundling college data at the program level will result in a system that is more attuned to students’ needs and taxpayers’ desire for cost-effectiveness. Here’s what it would look like:

  1. Public university systems likely would streamline their programs by offering some academic degrees at only one of their campuses instead of at each of their campuses. Relocating academic majors would save money and improve learning because resources and professorial talent could be pooled at the campus where they would benefit the most students.
  2. Outside the traditional college setting, a private market would emerge for targeted job-training programs. New program providers would have lower overhead, and therefore could charge less, because they wouldn’t have to build dormitories, athletic fields, and arts facilities.
  3. Companies also likely would spring up to provide counseling tools for institutions and families once program-level information is made public.

The higher education system has the power to promote economic mobility and equity by preparing students for careers. Publishing program-level data will encourage it to do so.


Dr. Carnevale is Director and Research Professor of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, an independent, nonprofit research and policy institute affiliated with the Georgetown McCourt School of Public Policy that studies the link between education, career qualifications, and workforce demands.

Follow the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce on Twitter (@GeorgetownCEW), LinkedIn, YouTube, and Facebook.

Georgetown CEW

The Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce is a nonprofit, independent research institute that studies the link between education and the workforce.

Anthony P. Carnevale

Written by

Director and Research Professor at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, an independent, nonprofit research and policy institute.

Georgetown CEW

The Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce is a nonprofit, independent research institute that studies the link between education and the workforce.

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