New Regents website has inconsistencies in salary data

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A new Kansas Board of Regents website may have inaccurate data for salaries of degrees from Kansas universities.

The website, released on March 23, is an interactive tool for comparing undergraduate degree financial information among the state’s public universities. It includes an annual cost for the degree and the median wage upon graduation and after five years, as well as calculations of loan debt and degree investment.

According to the website, it was built in 2016 in response to Senate Bill 193 of the Kansas Legislature, which required “a ‘degree prospectus’ be published for each postsecondary degree program in Kansas.”

“I appreciate the Legislature’s interest in accountability for higher education,” Kerri Keller, executive director of Career and Employment Services, said. “This is something we’re seeing across the country. But I think it is misplaced accountability, given the fact that many — I think all — of the Regent universities have procedures already in place for collecting information on our graduates, and that’s a longstanding response to previous legislatures.”

While K-State already publicly publishes salary statistics annually, some of its data is contradicted by data from the Regents’ website, Keller said.

“I see a lot of potential issues with their data,” Keller said.

For example, a biology major can expect a $33,000 median salary at the first job after graduation, according to the College of Arts and Sciences Employment Report on the CES website. But according to the Regents’ website, the entry-level median salary is $20,264 while the salary after five years is $50,683.

“It’s not telling the whole story,” Keller said. “There’s more to the story there than what those numbers are showing.”

Such discrepancies between the two sets of data, Keller said, have led to concerns from various faculty and staff.

Another concern with the accuracy of the Regents’ data is that some degrees appear to have a salary decrease after five years. According to the website, an agronomy major would earn an entry-level median salary of $42,030, but the salary would then decrease to $39,248 after five years.

Additionally, the Regents’ website only includes data for graduates employed in Kansas. This is a problem, Keller said, because only 60 percent of K-State graduates with jobs are employed in Kansas. The other 40 percent work in other states.

“(The Regents’ website) is not presenting a complete picture of the data of our graduates,” Keller said.

Comparatively, Keller said K-State has an 80 percent response rate on its surveys, which she said is above the national average.

“We have really good data,” Keller said.

It is unclear how the Regents’ website factors in graduates who continue their education instead of entering the work force. The website states that “graduates continuing their education in the following academic year, enrolled in at least 12 credit hours, are removed from the denominator.”

However, a typical graduate student is enrolled in only six to nine credit hours.

Through decades of collecting data, Keller said K-State has consistency in its statistics. While the Regents’ website allows users to easily compare statistics among degrees from different Regents universities, Keller said users should be careful.

“From what I’ve seen, I don’t even think there are good comparisons across our universities,” Keller said.

Alison Wheatley, assistant dean of Arts and Sciences and associate professor of English, said more transparency in terms of how the data was collected is needed.

“One dean made a phone call (to the Regents) to try to find out where that data came from,” Wheatley said. “The person he spoke to was not able to give him that information.”

While she has not yet looked at the website herself, Wheatley said the concerns from other faculty make her also question the accuracy of the Regents data.

“It’s just unclear to me at this point whether the data about starting salaries is accurate,” Wheatley said.

Wheatley, who is also in charge of open-option advising, said open-option advisers may use the website as a starting point in discussions with students, but she said advisers “are not going to take it as gospel.”

“I don’t believe it’s going to have a tremendous affect on our advising,” Wheatley said. “I think it may provide some information and cause some concern for students and families before they decide on college, but I think our open-option advisers work with each student to find what fits them best academically and in every other way.”

Wheatley said this kind of financial information is used in advising, but its influence depends on the student, as some students value expected salaries more highly than others.

“We really encourage students to find their passions and to follow them,” Wheatley said.

Wheatley said she thinks college degrees are a good investment, regardless of the major, because they have “been shown to yield higher-paying jobs across the board.”

“The skills that a student learns, the analytical skills, the research skills, the communication skills, are transferable to almost any field and almost any career,” Wheatley said.

Molly McGaughey, director of the Office of Admissions, said the Regents’ website has already caught the attention of high school counselors and students.

She said there are already plenty of resources available on financial information for potential college students, so she said she was not sure how the Regents’ website will be used. Through networking with high school counselors, Admissions will learn more about the effects of the website, McGaughey said.

“Finances overall are very important to students and families,” McGaughey said.

Along with finances, the overall academics of the university, as well as the “campus feel” or “brand,” are generally the top three factors for students who are choosing a university, McGaughey said.

Admissions representatives rarely field questions from potential students about salary information for specific majors, McGaughey said. Instead, those kind of questions are usually asked when students meet with representatives from the specific academic program.

McGaughey said she hopes the website will improve in the future.

“We just want it to be as clear as possible how the website was built as well as how people should interpret the data,” McGaughey said. “We’re just looking for a little bit of clarification at this point.”

Keller said people should be careful when it comes to information on the Internet.

“I’m a parent of a young person that will go on to a college in a few years,” Keller said. “It just reminds me that to make an informed decision, you really have to be careful about how you interpret data and information that is shared with you.”

Wheatley said the kind of information provided by the Regents’ website can be useful but should not be the only consideration.

“I’m all for informed decisions, so in general I applaud the Board of Regents for creating this site,” Wheatley said. “But until we have a chance to really investigate whether it’s accurate, I’m going to have to take it with a grain of salt.”

Jason Tidd graduated from Kansas State University's Miller School of Journalism and Mass Communication in May 2017. He was the spring 2017 editor-in-chief, fall 2016 news editor and spring 2016 assistant news editor. While at K-State, Jason played baritone in the Pride of Wildcat Land marching band.