Does it pay to get a bachelor’s degree?

One year after graduation, students with applied science degrees from the state’s two-year colleges earn nearly $7,000 more than graduates with bachelor’s degrees from four-year colleges and universities, according to a new study and database.

college measures
South High School junior Anesia Broomfield, 16, checks out the newly released College Measures interactive database during a news event Wednesday at South High.

Do you want to make good money right after graduation? Study computer science, engineering, medical fields or business. Want to be broke? Pursue film studies, philosophy or history.

Those are some of the conclusions that can be drawn about the initial value of college degrees from the College Measures database that was unveiled Wednesday during a news conference at Denver’s South High School.

The College Measures tool, which allows users to search by degree or by institution to find first-year earnings, is the product of collaboration between the Colorado Department of Higher Education and College Measures, a for-profit partnership between the American Institutes for Research and Matrix Knowledge Group. A Lumina Foundation grant funded the bulk of the project.

It doesn’t include harder-to-quantify information, such as happiness or job satisfaction.

“The associate’s degree is the hidden gem in American higher education,” College Measures President Mark Schneider said. “Not everyone needs a bachelor’s degree.”

Schneider, while saying a bachelor’s degree doesn’t have a lot of value in the short-term, said he doesn’t “hate” liberal arts.

“I have a liberal arts degree,” Schneider said. “But it’s a serious question about what the value of those are. You may have a lot of life satisfaction, but if you’re living in your mum’s basement and can’t feed yourself, life satisfaction could be hard to come by.”

Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia, a parent of four – one now in college – said he has spent considerable time as a parent and as a college president counseling thousands of kids and families about the value of a college degree.

“I wished I had a tool like the one we’re making available now,” Garcia said. “As students and families think about increased debt load we need to provide them with the kind of information they need.”

Key findings

  • Colorado graduates working in Colorado can earn, on average, $20,000 more in their early years of employment compared to a high school graduate, who earns an average of $25,000.
  • Graduates with applied science degrees earn about $15,000 more than students who completed the associate of arts degree or associate of sciences degree.
  • The median first-year earnings of bachelor’s degree recipients statewide is around $39,000. However, there is a wide range in earnings according to field of study. First-year earnings range from less than $30,000 for fine and studio arts graduates to more than $50,000 for registered nursing graduates.

Some of the news is not surprising. Higher demand translates into higher salaries. To that end, graduates in health and business earn more than graduates with liberal arts degrees.

But the data shows that not all business degrees, for instance, are created equal.

Take business administration, management and operations. A $20,000 difference is found in the first-year earnings of people who graduated in these fields from the University of Denver (more than $59,000) and the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs ($39,000). Although part of that difference is attributable to differences in the local job markets, there is a $16,000 difference in the earnings of graduates from the University of Denver and University of Colorado Denver, both located in the same metropolitan area.

Generally speaking, graduates from the Colorado School of Mines command the highest beginning salaries – about 45 percent higher than the state median.

Graduates of private Regis University also do quite well in the labor market, with median first-year earnings about 38 percent higher than the state median. One reason for this is that Regis graduates generally are older than grads from other campuses in Colorado and have been in the labor market for years.

CU raises questions about the findings

The state’s flagship campus – the University of Colorado at Boulder – doesn’t rank highly in College Measures, with its bachelor’s degree recipients earning less than the state median salary in their first year of work.

The companion report on College Measures notes that CU-Boulder attracts a lot of out-of-state students and that many of its most successful grads may seek employment or graduate degrees in other states.

CU system spokesman Ken McConnellogue said that there are many caveats about the data. For instance, only 26 percent of CU-Boulder’s graduates with bachelor’s degrees remain in Colorado the first year after graduation. That’s compared to 80 percent of graduates from the Metropolitan State University of Denver, for instance.

Furthermore, a liberal arts degree from a reputable university has value way beyond what a graduate earns their first year out, he said.

“This is a snapshot in time,” McConnellogue said. “It can be useful, but the value of a college degree is measured over a lifetime. … It’s important for people to take the long view. No one measure can give people an accurate view.”

Furthermore, McConnellogue noted that the study was done during the recent economic recession.

Garcia and others involved College Measures said the plan is to include data that will examine earnings over three, five and 10 years to get a more accurate picture of the value of specific degrees from specific institutions.

Helping families make good choices

The point of all this information, of course, is to help students and families make the best decisions when it comes to post-secondary education and the accompanying debt. While there is no guarantee of specific earnings upon graduation, the ranges of first-year earnings listed in the tool can serve as a guide for solid financial planning.

The report cites advice from Mark Kantrowitz, an expert in student financial aid, who says that education debt should be less than expected starting salary after graduation. Even better, student loan debt should be less than 50 percent of starting salary.

The College Measures data includes college graduates from Colorado public colleges and universities and from three private institutions with records in the state’s unemployment insurance wage database, or 61,800 graduates between 2006 and 2010 representing 26 percent of the graduate pool. To be included, graduates must be employed in Colorado and earning at or above the Colorado minimum wage.

The numbers don’t capture any for-profit institutions of higher education. Nor does it include graduates who continued their education after earning a credential, including those enrolling in graduate school or transferring to another college in Colorado and who are full-time students. It also doesn’t include graduates who left the state, who work for the federal government or who were self-employed.

College Measures is also up and running in Arkansas, Virginia, Tennessee. Next month, Florida, Texas and Nevada’s websites will come online.

“States have been sitting on a treasure trove of information for a long time,” College Measures President Schneider said. “That’s one thing that has driven me crazy. All these data sit in warehouses. My goal has been to try to create data storefronts, to try to get the information out into the hands of people who could use it to make important decisions.”

Schneider said that most college-bound students and their families have one thing on their mind – good jobs after graduation.

Technical degrees a “hidden gem”

The key finding in the data is the value of associate’s degrees in technical fields.

“Most students say they want a bachelor’s degree,” Schneider said. “But if you can’t do a four-year college degree – you don’t have money or time – a two-year technical degree is something we should respect and honor much more than we do.”

There is some variation in salaries for graduates of different community colleges. For instance, the median wage of graduates from Red Rocks Community College with associate’s general studies degrees is more than $46,000.

That about $6,000 higher than the median wages of graduates from Arapahoe Community College, Pikes Peak Community College and Community College of Aurora.

Jasmine Fox-Suliaman, 16, a junior at South, said the new tool won’t deter her from pursuing her dream of studying fashion journalism and ultimately living and working in New York City.

“It’s important to have tools like this,” she said. “This is a path (that shows) what I have to do in order to survive. It gives me more insight on how I’m going to prepare for the real world. I’m going to have to learn to budget, and not buy the shoes that are my favorites.”

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Top 10

From forest preschools to a secret apology, here are Chalkbeat Colorado’s must-read stories of 2018

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Megan Patterson works with children to make a dam in a creek during a recent "forest school" class.

We spend a lot of time at Chalkbeat chasing the news to keep our readers informed about controversial policy changes, fast-moving debates, and late-breaking decisions.

But we also relish the opportunity to dig deep into issues affecting students and families, shine light on innovative ideas, and hear from dedicated educators making a difference. With that in mind, we’ve gathered 10 of our best stories from 2018.

These stories don’t necessarily chronicle the biggest education issues of 2018, from teacher walkouts to unprecedented state interventions. But they are stories we think are important and insightful, and that we enjoyed reporting and writing. We hope you enjoy reading them.

No walls: Forest preschools let kids run free, but can they change to reach diverse families?

One day this past summer, about a dozen children frolicked by a Jefferson County creek — making pretend tea in small metal buckets, and building dams with sticks and mud.

They were students at Worldmind Nature Immersion School, where children spend all their time outside. So-called forest preschools like Worldmind are beloved by many families but face significant regulatory and logistical barriers in expanding their footprint nationwide. Here in Colorado, a pilot program could lead a new kind of child care license designed for them.

And being licensed could help the schools confront another problem: a lack of diversity among their students. Read more.

Colorado was never ranked 46th for teacher pay. Does this change the debate?

It was an oft-cited statistic: that Colorado, despite its booming economy, ranked 46th in the nation for teacher pay. The eye-popping number found its way onto social media posts and signs at massive teacher rallies last spring. News outlets latched on to it, too.

But it was wrong. Colorado was actually ranked 30th in the nation.

Our story breaks down how the mistake happened (hint: a new data system, an unrevised report) — and how groups with different agendas seized on the snafu to score points. Read more.

This is the letter of apology that Adams 14 leaders never sent

The Adams 14 district in Commerce City is arguably the most troubled and low-performing in Colorado. Just last month, state officials directed Adams 14 to hire an external manager to oversee the district’s operations for at least the next four years.

Back in September, Adams 14 officials considered taking a rare step: saying sorry to the community. But an apology letter was never signed nor sent out.

Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the letter, which makes mention of “various and conflicting priorities, coupled with constant turnover and organizational disarray.” Read more.

Rising test scores and dwindling trust: Denver’s Tom Boasberg leaves a complicated legacy

Colorado’s largest school district experienced a big change this year when longtime leader Tom Boasberg announced he would step down after nearly 10 years in Denver Public Schools.

Because of his school improvement strategies — some of which were controversial and heightened tensions with the community — the district that the new superintendent, Susana Cordova, will inherit in January is vastly different than it was a decade ago.

One tangible difference: Schools that once served as anchors of the community but struggled academically have been closed or replaced. That disappearance was on display on one of Boasberg’s last days, when he held his cell phone close to his mouth and enunciated each word so his GPS would understand his direction: “Montbello High School.” Read more.

Parents in one Aurora high school are visiting classrooms and giving teachers feedback

Like many schools in Colorado, Aurora’s Rangeview High School has a test score gap between white and black students. But the assistant principal there came up with a unique way to try to address it: by inviting black parents to visit classrooms and observe how students are — or are not — engaging with the teacher’s lesson, and then provide suggestions for improvement.

“We give true and honest feedback,” said one parent involved, “if they looked or appeared comfortable, how they interacted with the environment, the temperature of the room.”

Although the assistant principal considers the African American Parent Committee an experiment, she said it’s generating uncomfortable but necessary conversations. Read more.

How education reform became a wedge issue among Colorado Democrats this election year

For years, more moderate Democrats, often working in unison with like-minded Republicans, championed education reform efforts ranging from school choice to holding educators accountable for student performance.

But partly because of backlash against President Donald Trump and his education secretary, those strategies no longer fly with many Democrats — especially left-leaning Democrats who see them as undercutting public education and devaluing the work of teachers.

That sentiment was palpable in Colorado’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, and could shape the next legislative session, which starts in January. “Education is the issue that really stands to divide the left in a very substantial way,” one observer said. Read more.

How a Colorado school district turned things around at 10,000 feet above sea level

School improvement efforts look a little different high in the Rocky Mountains. While many of the strategies used by the 1,000-student Lake County school district are familiar to urban settings, they’ve been retrofitted to meet the needs of a district that’s 100 miles west of Denver.

For example, instead of firing teachers and principals who weren’t accelerating student learning fast enough, the district adopted a new curriculum and gave its teachers lots of training.

“The belief that the people are the problem is wrong,” the superintendent said. “Our teachers are professionals, and we believe in them. We’re proving that there is a framework or a pathway for rural schools to improve that’s about building capacity within your own community.” Read more.

7 things to know about how Colorado schools punish their youngest students

After state lawmakers rejected a bill to limit the use of suspensions in the earliest grades, Chalkbeat wanted to know more about the early childhood discipline landscape in Colorado. Data from the Colorado Department of Education revealed several trends.

Among them: Young black boys are suspended at disproportionate rates. Some rural school districts have the highest early childhood suspension rates in the state.

And despite nationwide debate about the impact of harsh discipline on young children and local efforts to bring the numbers down, suspensions in the early grades are actually going up. Read more.

In Denver’s gentrifying neighborhoods, some middle-class parents are avoiding the school down the block

Many neighborhoods in Denver are gentrifying, with middle-class families moving into what have historically been working-class communities. That type of demographic shift could easily lead to neighborhood schools that are more integrated by family income and race.

But that doesn’t always happen in Denver. Instead, data show that wealthier families – more often than low-income families – are using Denver Public Schools’ universal school choice process to send their kids to schools elsewhere in the city.

That’s a problem because research shows integrated schools boost test scores for students from low-income families without lowering the scores of those from wealthier ones. Denver officials want to see those benefits, but allowing parents to choose may be thwarting them. Read more.

Why this Colorado principal hand delivers birthday cards to more than 2,000 students and staff

Northglenn High School Principal Sharee Blunt is Colorado’s 2018 School Principal of the year — but perhaps even more impressive is the enormous number of birthday cards she hand delivers each year. If you’re one of those people who can barely remember your spouse’s birthday, you’ll be floored by Blunt’s annual feat.

In our interview with Blunt, part of Chalkbeat’s “How I Lead” Q&A series with distinguished school leaders, she talks about what she realized after a mother’s emotional reaction, and why she gave a teacher a pass during a lesson that went awry. Read more.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.