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Quick quiz: What is the typical income of Virginia’s college graduates shortly after graduation?

The answer used to be just a guess, but now we have accurate data to examine. It’s all a part of the new push to make colleges more accountable.

At first blush, it sure sounds like a good idea. Our kids are going to college to get better jobs. We can measure the cost. We can measure their income from those jobs. Do the math, and you’ll know where to send your son or daughter to get the best bang for your buck. Right?

Virginia is at the forefront of a national effort for colleges to report income levels of graduates by school and by major. Starting last year, state law required the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) to collect and publish data on the graduate outcomes of college students. We now have the ability to look at data on college majors and subsequent earnings of graduates by school, although there are some significant limitations.

How accurate can the numbers be? Very accurate. SCHEV matches up employees in Virginia with graduates of Virginia colleges using their social security numbers. This allows earnings that are reported to the Virginia Employment Commission to be matched up with college majors.

This is no survey or Census Bureau estimate.

SCHEV gives the students a chance to get out of school, find a job and get settled. The data is not collected until 18 months after graduation.

Still, a significant portion of graduates are not captured by the data. Some go to work in other states. Some graduates work for employers that do not report to the VEC. Some go to graduate school or work part-time. Some are unemployed.

This analysis includes the graduates of 2010. Only 37% of those graduates are accounted for by the SCHEV data.

There is no guarantee that the adults with jobs are working in a field related to their major. Recent studies have shown a significant and growing percentage of college graduates to be underemployed, working in fields that do not require a college degree.

Additional limitations and possible concerns with the data can be found on the SCHEV website at This analysis only covers four-year bachelor’s degree graduates and does not include graduate students or associate’s degrees or certifications.

Even with these caveats, there is still useful information to be gleaned.

The median salary that a four-year bachelor’s degree graduate was earning in 2012 was approximately $33,100. If your plans are to earn more than that, check your plan.

Some fields earn more than other fields, no surprise there. The highest paying majors are engineering, computer science and health professions (nursing).

The most popular major categories are business, social sciences and psychology.

The most popular yet low-paying categories are psychology, biology, visual and performing arts and communication/journalism. Across the state schools, the highest median biology major salary was $5,000 less than the lowest median business major salary.

The least popular but high-paying categories: engineering technologies, math and architecture.

It would be foolish to draw too specific a conclusion from the data available., but it is not foolish to consider if there are implications for your college choice.

George Mason has some of the higher paid graduates — by a wide margin in certain fields. Is that because of the value of the degree or some anomaly of the data or because the graduates work in Northern Virginia where incomes are higher?

Is there really a significant difference in earnings between a psychology major from Christopher Newport and William & Mary?

Some takeaways: Students, if you think you know what field of study you want to pursue, you should check out the salary data. Dig deeper into the reasons behind the numbers. Talk to admissions reps about your discoveries.

High school juniors indicate potential majors when they complete the PSAT, and it is revealing. High school students are interested in some of the lower paying fields: visual and performing arts, psychology and biology, according to the data. Being an artist might sound like a good idea at 17, but there is a reason for the term “starving artist”.

Colleges encourage you to study what you love. Perhaps, but keep an eye on what you’ll earn, especially if you are going into debt.

Parents, ask your high school students what major they put down on the PSAT and why. It’s a great chance to open a discussion about salaries, majors and expectations.

Choosing a college is not just a numbers game, nor is success in life all about your earnings. Consider the numbers as just one more factor in your decision.

Jonathon West

Jonathan West is President of the Richmond-based College Funding Group, which helps students and their parents navigate all aspects of the college selection process.