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College Scorecard says many NH schools are pricey, but are they worth it?

Last modified: 9/15/2015 12:34:30 AM
Graduates from most New Hampshire colleges and universities make more than their peers across the country, according to a torrent of new data about higher education released by the federal government – but they pay even more for their degree, leading to questions about value.

That is one conclusion that can be drawn from the College Scorecard released Saturday by the U.S. Department of Education, although it’s a conclusion that must be taken with a large grain of salt.

The College Scorecard is the latest attempt to measure the financial cost and benefit of attending various schools. Like all such sweeping attempts, such as the College Navigator from the National Center for Education Statistics and 2013 “return on investment” calculations by the firm Payscale, it has complications.

“One has to be leery with any of these scorecards, based on national reporting data. The reporting has to be so simplified that you will inevitably find many factors for which you can say that doesn’t reflect the nature of the institution,” said Ed MacKay, director of the New Hampshire Higher Education Commission.

Those complications is one reason the Obama administration dropped its initial plans to turn this data into a ratings system, giving each school a single grade. Instead, it released the information on a website that allows analysis of a huge (171 megabyte) database of post-secondary information.

The Monitor examined College Scorecard data for institutions in New Hampshire to see what they said about cost versus financial benefit. The data examined were: average earnings 10 years after entering each school for graduates who received federal, compiled by a joint effort between the departments of Education and the Treasury; and the average price of attending a school after federal, state and school aid is factored in.

Of 18 New Hampshire colleges and universities for which salary data was available on College Scorecard, 14 had average salaries that were higher than the national average.

Salaries ranged from a high of $67,000 for Dartmouth, $55,300 for Saint Anselm College in Manchester and $51,900 from Daniel Webster College in Nashua, down to less than $40,000 for the various community colleges. The lowest salary for a non-community college was $32,000 for Granite State College, the adult-education branch of the state university system, and $37,700 for Plymouth State University.

The data was not broken out by degree, so that a school that produces a high percentage of people in relatively low-paying fields, such as social work, would look worse than a school that emphasizes higher-paying fields such as engineering. Daniel Webster College’s emphasis on the aeronautics industry, for example, undoubtedly contributed to its high salary figure.

As for cost, data was available on how much students paid, after grants and aid, for 23 schools. Of those, 17 had costs that were above the national average.

Those ranged from slightly above $29,000 for Saint Anselm and Dartmouth and slightly above $28,000 for Southern New Hampshire University and New England College, down to $18,882 for tiny Thomas More College in Nashua, $18,338 for UNH-Manchester and less than $17,000 for the eight community colleges on the list.

The Monitor then tried to measure what might be considered the cost effectiveness of a school by taking its cost vs. national average and comparing it to the salary vs. national average.

Under that approach, for example, Dartmouth is expensive but looks to be worth it. The cost is 76 percent above the national average but the average salary is 95 percent above the national average.

In fact, Dartmouth, UNH-Manchester and several community colleges, including NHTI, were the only New Hampshire schools that did well under this comparison.

For most schools, the cost was worse, as compared to the national average, than the salary.

New England College in Henniker, for example, had a cost 70 percent above the national average but a graduate salary just 4 percent above the national average, the worst such spread in the state.

Also doing poorly were Southern New Hampshire University, where the cost was 72 percent above average but the salary just 22 percent above average, and Franklin Pierce University, where the cost was 45 percent above average and the salary just 11 percent above average.

SNHU, with its unusual structure involving many online students, is a good example of the complications in a single scorecard like this. The College Scorecard says it has 17,000 undergraduates, more than UNH in Durham, yet it actually has about 3,000 students on its Manchester campus and roughly 40,000 working toward undergraduate degrees online.

Paul LeBlanc, president and CEO of the school, said the federal data combines part-time online students into “full-time equivalents,” mashing together people pursuing different degrees at different speeds – making all its conclusions suspect.

Or consider schools like New England College and Granite State College, which have very low graduation rates. The scorecard doesn’t reflect that both schools have a very high percentage of adult students, who traditionally have lower graduation rates. Granite State, in fact, is the University System of New Hampshire’s school for adults.

And cost is shaped by room and board. UNH-Manchester has a high percentage of students who commute while UNH-Durham has mostly students who live in dorms, which explains their large difference in costs.

Despite those provisos, several people described College Scorecard as one way for parents and students to start planning their post-secondary future.

“I think that the tool represents that shift where families are really thinking about higher education as return on investment,” said Tara Payne, director of the New Hampshire Higher Education Assistance Foundation. “There was a time it was all about the name on the bumper sticker.”

Despite his concerns, LeBlanc of SNHU was sympathetic to the College Scorecard’s effort – partly because he saw some preparations for the program as part of a three-month stint as an adviser to the undersecretary of education.

“I was in the room when a lot of this was being discussed,” he said.

“At least it’s a starting point. If they’re deliberate and thoughtful about how to continue developing it . . . the real value may be realized two or three years from now, when we actually g9et this right,” 
Le Blanc said.

“Higher ed has generally resisted sharing this kind of data, even actively lobbied against it, under umbrella of privacy. . . . This may force higher ed to get into a discussion about data, and force them to say, ‘Let’s work with the department to get them better data,’ ” he said.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313, dbrooks@cmonitor.com, or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article originally had an incorrect reference to White Mountain Community College, confusing it with now-closed Mount Washington College. The reference has been removed.


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