It only took a glance to know that a ranking of return on investment for degrees from 22 Minnesota colleges and universities was wrongheaded. That’s because it had St. John’s University on top.
Not that St. John’s doesn’t deserve recognition for its high-quality academic offerings. It appears regularly on the widely watched U.S. News & World Report that ranks the 100 best liberal arts colleges in the country.
But one of the other colleges on the U.S. News list, the College of St. Benedict, happens to be the women’s half of the same academic program as St. John’s — but it came in at No. 20 on the return on investment ranking.
Both colleges are just west of St. Cloud, and while not exactly the same place — with St. Benedict in the village of St. Joseph and the St. John’s campus about 6 miles away — their academic program is one and the same. One provost. One faculty.
The investment return for a degree from all-male St. John’s, meaning the lifelong earnings premium of a college degree less the cost of attendance, was $860,800. From St. Ben’s, it was just $193,900.
For the same degree. From essentially the same school.
Can it really be that best way to get the maximum value from a college degree is to be a male?
The ranking that placed St. John’s on top was clearly well-meaning, prepared by a provider of information on higher education options called Affordable Colleges Online. It based its findings in part on salary information from PayScale.
Two-thirds of college seniors now graduate with an average of $26,600 in student debt, and as costs continue to mount, it makes more sense than ever to try to figure out ROI (shorthand for return on investment). Such a calculated approach was even part of the college plan put forward by President Obama when he was on the road last week to put the spotlight on the surging costs of higher education.
MaryAnn Baenninger, the president of St. Benedict’s since 2004, has no objection to thinking about the returns, but said she finds the Affordable Colleges Online study “frustrating.” And seeing St. John’s sitting at No. 75 on the U.S. News list while St. Ben’s is No. 96 “rankles.”
Clearly, Baenninger’s beef isn’t with St. John’s. She warmly refers to St. John’s men as “our students” with obvious pride in a recent conversation, so much so that one would think she heads St. John’s, too. What’s frustrating for her is that the variations between St. Ben’s and St. John’s in areas such as earnings of graduates have only one explanation — gender.
“It’s not what we do to them at St. John’s and St. Ben’s that causes them to have different salaries when they come out,” she said.
How big the salary differences are between the men and women depends on the source of the data, too.
The most recent salary surveying from the 2012 class shows the grads from the two schools to be pretty close, with an average for St. Ben’s graduates at about $38,900 and the men from St. John’s at about $40,100.
“You are not only getting two different gender populations,” Baenninger said. “You are getting two different populations of employment characteristics. And that’s real. Those are real differences. That’s not PayScale.com’s fault. It is society’s fault, and society’s problem.”
The most popular majors at St. Ben’s are psychology, biology, communications and nursing, although not that many St. Ben’s students actually end up with a nursing degree upon graduation.
The top field of study for the men at St. John’s is global business leadership — which, depending on how you view it, isn’t even a field of liberal arts study.
Jay Benanav, the founder of College Advisors Network and an adviser in St. Paul to students and their families, said high school seniors don’t need to calculator to figure out that grads of global business leadership and petrochemical engineering programs tend to have more salary potential than elementary education majors over the course of a career.
As he put it, “If you really wanted to get serious about it, you would look at it department by department and major by major for every school.”
Just why women and men tend to choose different paths is complicated, Baenninger said, and well worth a discussion. What would help foster that is if coeducational liberal arts colleges would collect and publish data by gender much the same way St. Ben’s and St. John’s do.
Baenninger said she has pitched that idea at conferences, and she knows without asking that doing so would show the same differences between men and women as they have at St. Ben’s and St. John’s. But unlike at her college, she said, it’s not discussed much.
“This is one of the things that keeps the disparities occurring,” Baenninger said. “If anybody thinks there is an even number of physics majors between men and women at coed institutions, they are wrong. By not separating the data, they are masking what St. Ben’s and St. John’s are revealing.”
It seems like a good idea to disclose more data by gender across higher education, but of course, how much it will lead to different choices for high school seniors and their families is far from clear.
But at least no one can go on believing that the top ROI college in Minnesota is one that just coincidentally happens to be only for men.