The University of South Dakota is ranked last — dead last.
According to a March 12 MoneyWatch article examining starting salaries earned by graduates of the 46 state flagship universities around the country, USD grads earned less than any other flagship university, taking in $35,900 per year.
The figures, generated by a research firm called PayScale and made available by CollegeMeasures.org, placed the University of California-Berkeley at the top of the list, with its graduates earning an average starting salary of $53,100.
Students had mixed reactions about whether this information would have impacted their decision to attend USD.
“For me, USD offers the best education at a reasonable price,” sophomore Isaiah Wonnenberg said. “I don’t think hearing something like this would have affected my decision.”
Junior Denise Plagmann felt differently.
“It might have,” Plagmann. “I’m from Iowa, and I was thinking of going elsewhere.
Steve Ward, USD’s director of the Academic and Career Planning Center, said he was skeptical of the ways the data for the survey was gathered, citing PayScale’s method of “calling students, and (getting) whoever they got.”
According to PayScale.com, its surveys are completed online by individuals in exchange for a free salary report that anonymously compares them to other people with similar jobs.
“We’re not last,” Ward said. “Their margin of error is plus or minus five percent. So if you raised us five percent, we wouldn’t be at the bottom.”
Ward said it was important to take into consideration that South Dakota is a low-wage state, and that, according to him, most of its graduates stay in-state after they graduate college. He also pointed out the survey did not represent students who went on to medical school, law school or any other professional school.
“Beyond just these high-level professional schools, over a third of our graduates go on to graduate school,” Ward said. “So we’re only looking at two-thirds of our students here. There’s a lot of flaws in the data that make the headline a little less scary.”
USD President James Abbott said some of the most common professions chosen by USD graduates do not immediately yield great financial gains.
“Many of our graduates who do not go on to graduate or professional school choose to become teachers or nurses,” Abbott said. “Both are honorable professions but with lower starting salaries.”
Statistics prove problematic
Matthew Moen, dean of USD’s College of Arts and Sciences, said although ranking colleges by various criteria appears to be a growing trend, the real value of an institution’s education often cannot be adequately evaluated by a list.
“There have gotten to be a whole lot of college ranking arrangements of various legitimacy,” Moen said. “In my view, there have been a lot of entrepreneurs looking at the commercial success of this who are now coming up with all sorts of ranking schemes of colleges and universities. I suppose it’s a natural, consumer-driven development, but I think it’s only one slice of a much larger pie that we call a college education.”
Moen said much of the problem with the PayScale survey is that there is a palpable distinction between urban schools and rural schools. Higher salaries seemingly have a connection to large research institutions in chiefly urban areas, whereas graduates in smaller rural areas are generally offered more modest starting salaries. Moen called the results of the survey an “artifact of the higher versus lower wage states.”
He also said the survey reported only average starting salaries for people with a four- year degree, and that USD had a “hefty proportion” of graduate and professional students not counted as part of the survey.
Moen said one of the biggest issues with the survey, which reflects the attitude of today’s young work force, is an overemphasis on the importance of a first job and the salary that comes with it.
“What really matters is not so much the first job, but the last job that you have in your life,” Moen said. “What rankings like this do not capture are the students who finish school and do Teach For America, or join the Peace Corps, or do something else that is not a high-wage choice immediately after school, but who, over a lifetime, may have a marvelous career. And that marvelous career may come precisely because they delayed the obvious career choice after they graduated.”
Abbott voiced similar beliefs.
“Starting salaries are important – especially when student debt is considered – but the real key is where one ends up, not where one starts,” Abbott said.
Moen pointed to a 2005 Wall Street Journal article that said chief executives at many Fortune 500 companies like Apple and Exxon Mobil are required to have a broad liberal-arts education and wide international experience. A number of CEOs from these companies graduated from state universities or little-known colleges, and, according to the chief executive of a New York executive firm, “Once someone becomes seasoned enough to vie for a for a company’s highest post, nobody really cares what college he or she attended.”
Importance of experience
Still, Moen said USD offers students a quality education they could take wherever they wanted.
“If you want to take your skillset and import it to a higher wage state, or a high-wage area, you can still do that,” Moen said.
Ward said the mid-career salary for USD graduates was “quite high” – higher than any other S.D. school except the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology – and that he thought students were “getting a pretty good bang for their buck.”
Nonetheless, he said USD graduates should actively work to improve their chances of obtaining a higher starting salary by utilizing resources offered to them by the university.
“We need to get students more involved in internships and work experience, while they’re in college, so they can be more competitive after they graduate,” Ward said. “Those are things like strong communication skills, organizational skills, critical thinking skills, leadership skills. Yes, you can develop those in the classroom, but you really get them by getting involved on campus.”
Ward warned students against relying solely on possessing a college degree.
“You’ve got to be able to demonstrate to employers that you have these marketable skills,” he said. “And the only way to demonstrate that is to have experience outside the classroom to prove you have them.”