Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Which Colleges Give Students Best Return?

MU, MSOE, UW-Madison the highest, MIAD and UW-Superior the lowest in future earnings.

By - Aug 25th, 2022 03:35 pm
Father Marquette Statue on the campus of Marquette University. Photo by Dave Reid.

Father Marquette Statue on the campus of Marquette University. Photo by Dave Reid.

If there is any seemingly unassailable maxim in the field of education, it’s that a college degree pays off in higher income for students. As Money Magazine reported in February, “young workers with college degrees now outearn their high-school-graduate counterparts by a record-high $22,000 per year,” according to new data from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. This was the highest pay gap ever reported by the New York Fed, which has tracked earnings going back to 1990.

But it turns out this dramatic-sounding payoff for college students isn’t as universal as it might sound. For there are many students who invest in a college education, paying a lot of money and perhaps incurring a significant debt, without finishing and getting a degree. And even for those who do graduate, many may earn much less than the median salary cited by Money magazine.

An arguably more accurate picture of how well an investment in college pays off was done by Third Way, “a national think tank that champions modern center-left ideas.” The group did a report entitled “Higher Eds Broken Bridge to the Middle Class,” which analyzed employment data from the US Department of Education and then did a table listing nearly 4,000 universities and colleges across the nation showing what percent of an institution’s students were earning more than the average high school graduate six years, eight years and 10 years after beginning classes.

The results are, frankly, a shock. They show that at the majority of institutions (52%) more than 50% of students earned less than an average high school graduate after six years. That dropped to 37% of all institutions after eight years and 29% after 10 years. Meaning the majority of students at more than a quarter of all institutions of higher education are earning less than the average high school graduate — this after these students did years of work and probably invested huge amounts of money to pursue a degree.

The average level of college student debt in the U.S. is $37,693. To have invested that much and still be earring less than the average high school graduate is a dreadful outcome. As the report notes, “thousands of schools are providing minimal economic benefit to those who enroll. And for the many students who take out loans to finance their postsecondary endeavors, limited post-attendance economic opportunities may leave them in one of the most precarious financial situations, with student debt that is simply unmanageable.”

The study also looked at the outcomes for the types of colleges and found that after six years, private nonprofit colleges did the best: At 76% of those colleges at least 50% of students earned more than the average high school graduate after six years. That compares to only 46% of public institutions and just 17% of private of profit colleges.

Private for-profit colleges have long been criticized for exploiting students and delivering poor results. And they tend to attract a disproportionately high percent of students from minority and low-income families.

How are Wisconsin’s universities and colleges doing? Checking the stats for Milwaukee-area institutions and all UW system colleges, MSOE ranked at the top after six years, with 89% of students earning more than an average high school graduate. Marquette was second, at 83%, but after 10 years Marquette was at 89% with MSOE at 90 percent. Indeed, it’s clear that for both public and public institutions, the results can change as you move toward ten years after an education begins. We’re talking, after all, about young adults who are still discovering themselves, so the 10-year mark might be a fairer point of comparison.

No local institution had worse results than the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design, where the percent of students entering MIAD and earning more than average high school graduates was 47% at six years, 57% at eight years and 61% at 10 years. But everyone knows artists don’t make much money, You could argue the 61% is actually pretty good.

Stacey Steinberg, a spokesperson for MIAD, noted that its statistics show that “the median earnings in Design and Applied Arts with a Bachelor’s Degree is $45,908,” and “approximately 75% of MIAD students are currently enrolled in the college’s design majors.”

Private colleges like Mount Mary (70% earn more than the average high school grad after 10 years) and Alverno (69%) are behind schools like Marquette and MSOE, but they serve very different populations: 62% of Alverno students and 61% of Mount Mary students receive Pell Grants, generally used to measure the percent of students who are low income, versus 24% for MSOE and 20% for MU, as this ranking reveals. Given the student body they serve, both Alverno and Mount Mary have impressive results.

While the data on private colleges would be of great interest to any students and families considering which institution to select, the state’s public UW System raises much broader interest, as every taxpayer in the state helps support the system. So how is it doing?

Among UW System schools, the best results were for UW-Madison, where 79% of students after six years and 86% after 10 years earned more than the average high school graduate. But that’s to be expected because UW-Madison is the state’s most elite public institution, which can pick and choose the highest achieving high school grads and has a very low number (14%) of students on Pell grants.

No UW System college ranked lower than Parkside (56% of students after six years and 70% after 10 years earned more than the average high school graduate) and UW Superior (59% after six years and 68% after 10 years). But 39% of Parkside students are on Pell grants (the highest figure in the system) and 35% of UW-Superior students were on Pell grants, second highest in the system.

UWM ranked fourth lowest in the system after 6 years (68% of students out-earning the average high school grad) and fifth lowest after 10 years (77% of students), but ranked tied for third (with UW-Green Bay) in the portion of students (33%) on Pell grants.

Indeed the table below shows that the system’ colleges with the the best earnings for students after 10 years also tended to be those with the lowest percent getting Pell Grants.

UW-System Ranked By Earnings, Pell Grants

Percent of students out-earning HS Grads in 10 years Percent on Pell grants
UW-Madison 86% 14%
UW-LaCrosse 84% 19%
UW-Eau Claire 82% 22%
UW-Platteville 80% 24%
UW-Stout 80% 25%
UW-Oshkosh 79% 27%
UW-Whitewater 77% 27%
UW-Milwaukee 77% 33%
UW-Green Bay 77% 33%
UW-Stevens Point 76% 32%
UW-River Falls 76% 26%
UW-Parkside 70% 39%
UW-Superior 68% 35%

The other category of publicly financed institutions are the state’s voc-tech colleges. And the statistics show that these colleges have poorer results than for four-year colleges. At the biggest of these, Madison Area Technical College, the percent of students outlearning the average high school grad is 56% after six years, 63% after eight years and 65% after ten years. That’s higher than Milwaukee Area Technical College, now slightly smaller than its Madison peer and where the comparable percentages were 47%, 52% and 56%. The Milwaukee college, however, likely has a much higher percentage of low-income and minority students.

Tony Tagliavia, who handles marketing for Milwaukee Area Technical College, notes to Urban Milwaukee that the college has “worked with the respected economics data analytics firm Emsi to assess our impact and the firm found our associate degree graduates can expect to earn approximately $11,600 per year more than someone with a high school diploma alone.”

Tagliavia notes that the Third Way figures include all students, not just graduates and “this would significantly change the results for institutions such as MATC that serve students who often face challenges in life that force them to ‘stop out’ before attaining their degree.”

Indeed, including all students and not just graduates undoubtedly lowers the future salary figures for every institution of higher learning. But the Third Way report is looking at college tuition as an investment undertaken by all students, who may well run up a big student debt yet never graduate. That debt, in fact, can be a factor in why students drop out.

Steinberg notes that higher education is about more than future earnings. “MIAD provides a holistic experience that prepares students not only to become professionals but to become committed social citizens who are engaged in bettering the communities in which they live.”

It’s a good point: a college education is about more than bettering your potential salary. Speaking as a liberal arts major, I believe the intellectual benefits of such an education are many —  but they will be hard to enjoy if you can’t make a decent living with your degree.

The Third Way report shows the federal government provides some $1.8 billion in annual funding to institutions of higher earning where more than 70% of students earn less than the average high school graduate after eight years. As the report notes, “Its essential that policymakers put more effective guardrails in place that assure students will be financially better off after they attend a federally funded institution, ensuring taxpayers get a return on their massive annual investment in higher education institutions.”

2 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: Which Colleges Give Students Best Return?”


    Very thought provoking article. It is not surprising that UW Madison leads since the vast majority of its students come from families making more than $100,000 annually and relatively few from low-income families. In regard to MATC 60% of its students receive Pell Grants and that undercounts the number of impoverished students attending since almost one thousand are at the 150% rule (they have used up their financial aid eligibility) and there are a significant number of DACA students who don’t qualify for Pell. Just eye balling the data it appears there is a relationship between the family income of students and their future earnings. Finally, the MATC spokesman is correct that many students job out. IF the data is only on graduates it is missing those who attended and used the technical education to secure a job or promotion but don’t not complete. I suspect that is a significant number. It is interesting that Madison Area Technical College now has more students that Milwaukee. The tight labor market and its increased wages have lured many potential Milwaukee ATC students into the labor force and away from pursuing an MATC degree.

  2. Duane says:

    I am actually pleasantly surprised that all UW systems outperform those national numbers. And even the lowest performer, the private Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design, also outperformed.
    The national numbers that the Third Way study showed are miserable. (at the majority of institutions (52%) more than 50% of students earned less than an average high school graduate after six years, 37% of all institutions after eight years and 29% after 10 years). Again, those are miserable numbers. Nice that it doesn’t seem to apply to this state but wonder what the heck is going on nationally to bring those numbers down so much.

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