Misleading list of colleges with poor diploma values unfairly targets NC schools

April 7, 2014 

The following editorial appeared in the Fayetteville Observer:

Lists are the rage these days, especially online. Getting you to click is the only way for web information companies to survive. Lists are proven attention-getters that don’t cost much to create. Some lists are interesting and mildly informative. But some, using real statistics crunched illogically to create artificial rankings, are misleading.

Fayetteville State University bore the brunt of unwanted attention last week after one online list maker, PayScale, posted its annual assessment of diploma values. FSU placed next to last, behind only Raleigh’s Shaw University. Neither deserves that.

PayScale claims that the lifetime earnings of graduates of Fayetteville State are well below the cost of out-of-state tuition, and the ratio isn’t very good for in-state students, either.

PayScale has been generating this annual “return on investment” list for several years; it’s not the first time the Broncos have trailed. FSU Chancellor James Anderson called the 2013 ratings “grossly distorted,” and his spokesman last week said that hasn’t changed.

A glance at the top schools on PayScale’s list suggests one source of bias – it’s heavily tilted toward schools generating lots of engineering and other high-wage technical degrees. Schools that emphasized training educators, artists and businesspeople did less well. What PayScale has actually said is, if your goal is to get stinking rich, major in a technical field.

This list is also geographically biased, because it didn’t adjust for regional cost-of-living differences. A much lower salary in North Carolina will buy you much more than in many states in the Northeast or Pacific Coast, whose schools dominated the top of Seattle-based PayScale’s list. That explains why so many North Carolina schools wound up with low rankings.

The list also looks at tuition without accounting for the large number of students at many schools who receive scholarships and grants to cover most of these costs.

Unfortunately, though this list lacks the credibility of some others, it could affect FSU negatively, discouraging potential students, faculty and donors. The school may want to respond in two ways.

Defense: Point out the inherent flaws in PayScale’s rankings. Point to the brilliant successes at FSU in recent years, including the growing regard for its business and criminal justice programs.

Offense: Take this insult as a thrown-down gauntlet. FSU isn’t what this list says, but there’s room for improvement. Do what it takes to shore up the perceptions and statistics that are holding back the Broncos on this list and others.

As for PayScale, maybe we need another list – of online list-makers that aren’t worth the pixels they print with.

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