As commencement ceremonies were held throughout Wisconsin in May 2011, an economics instructor delivered what might be startling news to graduates of four-year colleges:
"Wisconsin’s tech college grads have a higher employment rate and starting salaries than four-year grads."
So read the headline on a May 19, 2011, blog posting from Michael Rosen, who teaches economics at Milwaukee Area Technical College. He is also president of the union that represents MATC teachers and other employees.
It might not be surprising if more technical college graduates than four-year graduates get jobs soon after finishing school.
But they get paid more, too?
Rosen’s blog post, essentially a news and opinion column, appeared on WisOpinion, a website run by WisPolitics.com, and was distributed to subscribers of the weekly WisOpinion e-newsletter. It was also picked up by other sites.
To back his statements, Rosen cited figures from two sources:
The Wisconsin Technical College System’s 2010 Graduate Follow-up Report from April 2011. It reported results of a survey of 2010 graduates of Wisconsin’s 16 technical colleges. The 17,498 graduates surveyed by the various colleges, through mail and other ways, represented 68 percent of the graduates that year.
A New York Times story about a May 2011 Rutgers University study. Rutgers surveyed online a nationally representative sample of 571 U.S. residents who graduated from a four-year college between 2006 and 2010.
A note before we proceed: Although 68 percent of the tech college grads responded to the survey, they are not a scientific sample of all grads, which could skew the results. For example, unemployed grads would be undercounted if they were less likely to respond to the survey. In contrast, Rutgers said it used a nationally representative sample of people ages 22 to 29 and that its survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.5 percentage points.
Now, let’s grade both of Rosen’s claims.
Rosen claimed that Wisconsin technical college graduates have a higher employment rate than four-year college graduates nationally.
The Wisconsin technical colleges survey found that 88 percent of the grads who responded to the survey and who were in the labor force (as opposed to getting more schooling, for example) were employed within six months of finishing school.
However, the survey did not try to determine which of those were employed full time and which were employed part time, said Julie Tyznik, performance measurement coordinator for the state tech college system. Of those who were employed, 71 percent said they were in a job related to the training they received.
The Rutgers national survey of four-year college graduates found that only 56 percent of the 2010 graduates had gotten a full-time job within about 10 or 11 months of graduation. (Like some of the tech college grads, some four-year grads went on to further schooling or didn’t enter the labor force for some other reason.) Of those who did get jobs, 70 percent worked in a field related to their studies.
So, the 88 percent employment figure for the tech college grads is higher than the 56 percent figure for the four-year grads -- but there are some apples and oranges involved in this comparison. Tech college grads were considered employed even if they worked only part time, while the four-year grad survey measured only full-time employment among 2010 grads.
More detail is available in the Rutgers study if all of the 2006 through 2010 grads are considered. In the full sample, 53 percent were employed full time, 12 percent part time, 3 percent were self-employed and 2 percent were in the military. That’s a total of 70 percent employed. Of the rest, 21 percent were in graduate school and 9 percent were unemployed.
Rosen claimed Wisconsin technical college graduates earn a higher starting salary than four-year college graduates nationally. He said the median starting salary was $31,198 for Wisconsin technical college graduates and $27,000 for four-year graduates nationally. (The median is the mid-point -- half of the salaries are below and half are above the mid-point.)
But on this claim, as academics like to say, more research is needed.
The $31,198 starting salary for 2010 Wisconsin tech college graduates applies only to those graduates who were employed full-time in occupations related to their training. In other words, the picture is skewed because the dollar amount doesn’t take into account the tech grads who weren’t working in their chosen fields or those working part time.
The Rutgers study found the median starting salary for all 2010 four-year grads surveyed was $27,000, the comparison Rosen cited.
But when the comparison was shifted to only those working in fields related to their studies, the salary was $35,000 for the four-year graduates who got their degrees between 2006 and 2010 -- nearly $4,000 more than the starting salary for the tech college grads.
(Rutgers professor Cliff Zukin, one of the authors of the Rutgers study, told us the survey sample was too small to generate a median starting salary for only the 2010 four-year graduates.)
Rosen agreed he was wrong on his second claim about starting pay. He argued that his larger point -- that Wisconsin technical grads do better coming out of school than four-year grads nationally -- is accurate because, in his view, more of them find work.
OK, let’s don those caps and gowns; we’re about to graduate from this little course.
Rosen said Wisconsin’s technical college graduates have a higher employment rate and starting salaries than four-year college graduates nationally. On the first claim, a direct comparison of 2010 grads can’t be made because a complete breakdown wasn’t available, but more 2010 tech college grads found work than the 2006 through 2010 four-year grads.
On the second claim, Rosen admitted he was wrong.
We would also note that the tech college data comes from an unscientific survey and the four-year grads data was from a scientific survey. We don’t know how Rosen would score this all out on an economics quiz, but on our scale it rates a Barely True.
Editor's note: This statement was rated Barely True when it was published. On July 27, 2011, we changed the name for the rating to Mostly False.