A year after college, Virginia graduates with career-oriented bachelor's degrees earned substantially more than their classmates who studied the liberal arts, with two such University of Richmond programs producing the state's highest earners, an analysis of newly compiled wage data shows.
Further, community college graduates with occupational or technical associate degrees see initial greater payoff than some Virginians with bachelor's degrees, according to the report released today by the American Institutes for Research's College Measures.
The average first-year wages of graduates from the 17 most popular bachelor degree programs was $36,067, while community college graduates from occupational or technical programs had an average salary of just under $40,000.
But the report, which is limited to graduates working full time in Virginia, finds wide variations in average earnings among programs and among the public and private nonprofit schools examined.
The two bachelor's programs with the highest first-year wages were UR's information science/studies at $82,622 and human resources management/personnel administration at $69,104.
In a comparison by institution, UR — with average starting wages of $44,920 — was second to the Jefferson College of Health Sciences in Roanoke, at $56,400.
Among the most popular bachelor degree programs based on numbers enrolled, registered nursing graduates earned the highest average starting salaries at $48,959.
Nursing graduates with two-year degrees earned more — at $45,342 — than the next six highest bachelor's programs, which were all business degrees. They include finance majors ($42,131); accounting ($42,110); and business administration ($38,578).
Graduates from other large liberal-arts programs fall below the state average, ranging from $35,774 for multi-/interdisciplinary studies to $27,893 for biology.
Among popular liberal-arts programs, political science graduates on average earned $31,184; history majors, $30,230; and English majors, $29,222.
Of bachelor programs with the lowest first-year earnings were two from Virginia Commonwealth University: painting at $23,295 and sculpture at $23,137, the report found.
The analysis is based on the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia's new Virginia Longitudinal Data System and comes with the same caveats as that system.
The system includes only graduates working in the state in positions that must be reported to the Virginia Employment Commission, which means self-employed graduates or those working for the federal government are not included.
Mark Schneider, a vice president at AIR and president of College Measures, said that despite the limitations, the report provides an important measure for students questioning "is this program really worth it? Am I ever going to pay off my loans?"
Longer-term analysis will be necessary to determine the payoff 10 years after graduation for some liberal-arts programs, Schneider said.
Also left to later analysis is a "value-added model" to measure such factors as how the affluence of a student's family might affect the post-graduation job hunt.
But students need short-term data on starting salaries now to make wise decisions, he said.
"I think this is fundamental," Schneider said.
Virginia is the third state College Measures has examined. Similar studies of Arkansas and Tennessee also have found "a high value to technical two-year associate degrees," at least in the short term, he said.
Among many of Virginia's community colleges, the earnings of graduates with an occupational and technical associate degree are as much as $10,000 more than those with a non-occupational two-year degree and nearly $2,500 more than the bachelor's degree average.
While a bachelor's degree usually will pay off more over the long term, Schneider said, "a two-year technical degree is really a valuable investment."
Some other findings: Graduates of Bluefield College, a private liberal-arts school in economically distressed Southwest Virginia, rank high in first-year average earnings at $43,442, just behind UR's $44,920.
George Mason University graduates, who average $41,153, out-earn University of Virginia alumni, whose starting salaries average $39,648.
VCU graduates earn on average $34,677, edging out the College of William and Mary, at $34,571, in first-year wages.
Other first-year earning averages in the report include Virginia Tech ($38,957); Virginia Military Institute ($38,914); James Madison University ($35,224); Randolph- Macon College ($30,621); Virginia State University ($28,820); and Virginia Union University ($28,376).