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Online tool shows Va students' future earnings

Thursday - 10/4/2012, 3:34pm  ET

RICHMOND, Va. - A new online tool that became available Thursday aims to help students figure out how much money they'll make in different careers.

The Virginia Longitudinal Data System has been in the works for about seven years, but it was mandated by legislation passed by the General Assembly this year.

The Richmond Times-Dispatch reports (bit.lyRflOlh) that the system tracks by degree programs and schools the post-graduate wage earnings of more than 836,000 graduates of the state's public and nonprofit private colleges since 1999.

Data from the students is obtained from multiple state agencies by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia. The system then calculates average earnings at 18 months and five years after completion of a certificate or degree program through the doctoral level.

It does have limitations, though. The system only includes graduates working full-time in Virginia in positions that must be reported to the Virginia Employment Commission. It doesn't count large numbers of graduates, including those working for the federal government and the military, as well as self- employed entrepreneurs or those who find jobs outside Virginia. It does not include graduates of for-profit schools, which are not required to provide the student data to SCHEV, nor does it include programs with fewer than 10 graduates, said Kirsten Nelson, SCHEV's director for communications and government relations.

But with student debt reaching $1 trillion nationally and a report last week showing 1 in 5 households are affected, many say the information could be useful.

"I think this kind of information is vital," said Tom Kramer, who owes $60,000 on his 2006 College of William and Mary degree and is executive director of the student advocacy group Virginia21.

"For this generation of young people, it's never been more important for us to have better data," he said. Students need to know their prospects for paying their debts through information about "what's possible and what's out there and where to find it."

Kramer, a government and history major, said he thinks the increased data on degree outcomes will encourage students to diversify their studies.

"I'll tell you what this system would have done for me," he said. "I would have chosen government or history, and I would have doubled it up with something more in line with a STEM-style discipline."

State education officials are pushing to increase the number of graduates with STEM-H degrees _ science, technology, engineering, math and health _ because that's where jobs are expected to grow.

Some fear such systems will undermine the study of liberal arts, turning universities into trade schools.

Tod Massa, SCHEV director of policy research and data warehousing, said there's no intention for students to use the data "to simply use earnings to choose a degree program." He said the data will help measure the contribution higher education makes to the state's work force.

A SCHEV analysis of the data shows that since 1992, 3.9 million people have enrolled at a public or nonprofit college in the state. Since 2005, 2.25 million, or 58 percent of that group, have worked in positions reported to the VEC and have earned more than $393.2 billion.

Overall, between 2005 and 2011, about 7.1 million people worked in positions reported to the VEC and earned more than $1 trillion.

Plans are to make such data available for credentialed researchers to examine the transition from student to worker in greater detail.

The system _ which next year is expected to also show how much debt graduates owe by degree program _ parallels national efforts to bring more transparency to the escalating costs of higher education.

Bipartisan legislation introduced this year in the U.S. Senate called the Student Right to Know Before You Go Act also seeks to tie the outcome of different degree programs to their labor-market returns.

Massa said he has worked with the bill's sponsors and that their legislation is based on Virginia's program.

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Information from: Richmond Times-Dispatch, http://www.timesdispatch.com


(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)