By Emily Deruy
on November 7, 2021
Students in Stanford University’s English program can expect to earn roughly $24,000 two years after graduating from the prestigious, private university. Just down the street, students who earn a two-year associate’s degree through Foothill College in allied health diagnostic, intervention and treatment professions can expect to make about $113,000.
Philosophy majors at highly selective UC Berkeley can expect to earn about $21,000 shortly after graduation — after shelling out more than $15,000 a year for the degree. At Cal State East Bay, in Hayward, which costs about $11,000 a year to attend, students who earn a bachelor’s degree in construction management can bank on making about $80,000.
The mind-bending disparities are just some of the data families and students can glean from the U.S. Education Department’s recently updated College Scorecard, which aims to put a realistic spin on the financial costs — and payoffs — of higher education.
As high school seniors across the Bay Area apply to colleges this fall and students try to decide what majors and careers to pursue, the tool can help unpack which schools might be a good fit. The scorecard shows graduation rates and lets families calculate how much a school will actually cost out of pocket, along with how much a specific degree is worth after graduation. The results aren’t always intuitive — and often run counter to popular rankings. And they almost always provide a fresh perspective on the value of some of the Bay Area’s most sought-after schools.
Surprisingly, well-funded universities like Stanford that are widely perceived as pricey — the posted tuition is more than $55,000 — can actually be more affordable for many families than state schools … if you can get admitted. According to the tool, the average annual cost of attending Stanford is about $11,500 — that’s everything down to books and supplies — since the school completely covers tuition, room and board for many of its students. On average, nearby UC Santa Cruz costs more than $18,000 a year — but that’s still significantly less than its advertised price of roughly $38,000 for tuition, on-campus room and board, and other expenses.
The tool does have some limitations. The data is based on students who receive federal financial aid — think Pell grants and federal loans — and it doesn’t factor in things like out-of-state tuition. The salaries it generates are median annual earnings two years after a student earns a degree and only people who are working are included, so students who go on to graduate school instead of joining the workforce are not covered. Some of the salaries for specific programs are calculated based on just a few graduates.
Still, at a time when many families struggle to make sense of myriad rankings, the scorecard provides students with some enlightening comparisons.
It shows, with financial aid, the average cost to attend UC Berkeley is roughly the same as San Jose State. But while an electrical engineering degree from Cal earned graduates an average annual salary of more than $128,000 two years out of school, an engineering degree from SJSU yielded less than $79,000.
But the CSU vs. UC debate can be flipped when it comes to computer science. A computer science graduate from UC Santa Cruz, where the average annual cost runs roughly $18,000, earned roughly $63,500 a couple of years after graduation. But someone with the same degree from SJSU, which costs about $3,000 less a year than UC Santa Cruz, was earning about $75,000.
Marlon Saechao is a senior at San Jose State studying business marketing. The scorecard says students with business degrees earned more than $48,000 after graduation. That’s far less than nursing graduates, who earned more than $90,000, but far more than liberal arts majors, who earned less than $30,000.
“A lot of different factors came into play” when it came to picking a college and a major, Saechao said. “In my case, it had to do with convenience and return on investment, because I feel like the amount of money (SJSU cost) compared to Santa Clara University or other places was good, and the alumni network was a lot more vast … and they have a good reputation.”
Saechao, who said he thought he’d seen the scorecard online, said he was looking for programs that let him be creative, but also not destitute.
“I didn’t want to do art for financial reasons,” he said.
Tanya Enriquez, Bay Area regional advising manager at uAspire, a nonprofit that helps young people get the financial information and resources they need to find affordable college options without getting mired in crippling debt, said that as the pandemic upended campus communities and dorm life, more of the students her organization works with began rethinking their plans — and increasingly opting for community college. A Foothill College degree? Less than $4,000 a year.
“They’re saving quite a lot of money,” she said.
Of course, there are other factors like distance from home, university size and selectivity — a computer science degree from Stanford will garner a salary of more than $136,000, but almost no one gets into the program — and less quantifiable factors like campus culture to consider. Social pressures and notions about what makes a “good” or “bad” school also run deep.
Wei-Li Sun, an admissions consultant who helps students apply to the University of California system, said the scorecard provides helpful information, but many of the families she works with aren’t thinking about future earnings or cost so much as whether their students can gain admission to the system’s highly regarded, competitive schools.
“At the end of the day it’s a complicated issue because families are coming to the process with different expectations and different levels of being misinformed,” Sun said.
That can leave some families that assumed the UCs were affordable — and potentially wrote off other options perceived correctly or not as expensive — staring down debt they weren’t anticipating.
Terri Forman is executive director of the San Francisco-based nonprofit First Graduate, which helps first-generation college students navigate the application process. The scorecard, she said, is one tool for finding which schools might be a good fit.
“The biggest hurdle for our students is just the idea — is college affordable?” she said. “Some may think they can only go to community college because (a four-year college) is too expensive.”
As the scorecard shows, that’s not necessarily true — and many schools and organizations offer scholarships and grants that drastically slash posted costs.
At Holy Names University in Oakland, total estimated costs for a year come in at nearly $55,000. But the scorecard says the cost is much less, about $23,000. And students who study nursing there can expect to make more than $86,000 after graduation. Compare that to Chabot College, a two-year community college in Hayward, where the average annual cost is roughly $4,000, and the recipient of an associate’s degree in nursing can expect to make nearly $70,000.
“There are,” Forman said, “so many wonderful schools.”
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