Students Josh Cain and Erica Holiday leave the campus of Front Range Community College after classes in Westminster, Colo. in a file photo.

(AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)

State officials say a new interactive tool released Wednesday by the state Department of Higher Education will give Colorado high school graduates powerful insight into how much they could earn in their careers. 

The tool, called EdPays, shows how much graduates of different Colorado colleges, degree programs and fields of study are estimated to earn after one year, five years and 10 years. 

“As more and more students borrow more and more money to fund their postsecondary education, the existence of inexpensive pathways to good jobs should become part of student exploration of college options,” said Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia, executive director of the Colorado Department of Higher Education.

The data comes from 215,600 “completers” – people who finished a degree or certificate - from 2002 to 2012. That’s 40 to 44 percent of the total of those who graduated Colorado public colleges and universities and three private institutions, including the University of Denver, Regis University and Colorado Christian University. The survey covers people who stayed in Colorado. 

Bachelor's degrees can still pay off

A traditional bachelor’s degree is still valuable from an earnings point of view. But the report shows there are many other equally good, if not better options nowadays.

After a year of graduating, a student who has a technically focused associate’s science degree in something like nursing or fire science had the highest median earnings: $41,544. Students with a bachelor’s degree, meanwhile, after one year had average wages about $8,000 less. They still earn more, though, than the state median income of $31,421.

Wages for psychology bachelor’s degree graduates who do not pursue an additional degree are almost always less than the statewide median wage for all bachelor’s degree graduates. Business graduates earn about $10,000 more than the state average.

Statewide earnings after ten years for graduates from four-year universities range from a high of $90,934 for graduates of the Colorado School of Mines, to $43,559 for Adams State University graduates.

People with a bachelor’s degree earn more than those with an associate’s degree – but if your associate's degree is in applied science, you’re earning almost as much. And you’ve spent two years instead of four getting your degree, so the costs are a lot less, the report notes.

Incomplete information?

There is some criticism of EdPays.  A spokesman for the University of Colorado, Ken McConnellogue, says the intent of the new interactive tool is good. But  university officials feel like it paints an incomplete picture. It doesn’t track students who leave the state, who work for the federal government, Colorado’s largest employer, or those who go on to graduate school. 

"With such significant gaps in the data it’s not giving students a complete picture of what it possible for them," he says.

State officials acknowledge those data gaps and say the report spells them out.

“The report and database are much more robust this year than they were two years ago when we had earnings data for only one year after college graduation,” says Julie Poppen, a spokesperson with the Colorado Department of Higher Education. “In this EdPays edition, you can clearly see how bachelor’s degrees and higher yield greater earnings over time.  It remains our goal to eliminate these data gaps to create the most accurate possible picture of the return on investment in terms of higher education. “ 

Lt. Governor Joe Garcia also acknowledges college is about more than how much you'll earn afterwards.

"We know college is about becoming a more fulfilled individual, it's about creating someone who is going to be more engaged in their community and in their civic institutions, but students and families want to know, what will be the return on investment," he says. "What jobs will be there and how much will I earn?"

At least one private university, the University of Denver, is pleased with the report. Spokesperson Will Jones says in 2014, 97 percent of DU undergraduates were either admitted to graduate school or employed, after six months.

“We are optimistic that the results of this study will encourage more students to attain a college degree and to use their educational experiences as tools to assist them as they go out into the world and thrive,” he said. 

B.A. alternatives gaining popularity

A key finding shows that many post-secondary credentials other than bachelor’s degrees are becoming common. The last five years has seen a doubling in the number of associate’s degrees granted and an increase in more than 30 percent in the number of certificates granted.

In popular certificate programs like cosmetology, family studies, vehicle repair, nursing assistants, graduates end up earning below the state median income for certificate programs. 

Other certificate programs have a much bigger payout. In criminal justice and corrections, for example, certificate graduates can earn $74,000 after 10 years.

And it varies across institutions -- for example, at year 10, people who graduate from the Community College of Aurora and Arapahoe Community College earn twice that of graduate from at least three other community colleges.

The highest median incomes come from community colleges in Metro Denver area. That likely reflects regional differences in the cost of living, according to the report.

Students react

Students huddled over computers Wednesday at Gateway High School in Aurora, testing out EdPays. Many said while money is important, they were still very much driven by what they’re interests where. And for many, the allure of a 4-year degree is still very strong.

Freshman Stephany Anaya doesn’t know what she wants to do but she prefers a 4-year degree.

“I’ve heard from a lot of people that you can get better jobs like that and more learning experience than two years or one year,” she says.  

Gateway Stephany Anaya and Kaysha Collins don’t know what they want to do in life yet but say EdPays let’s them see options. 

(Photo: Jenny Brundin/CPR)

Just as was the case decades ago, it’s hard to know what you want to do in life when you’re only 16 or 17 years old. Anaya’s friend, sophomore Kaysha Collins is interested in culinary arts, but there’s a part of her also interested in engineering.

“So there’s a very wide spectrum on what I want to do,” she says with a laugh. Even if her choice doesn’t garner a big salary, “if I was really passionate about it, I would continue through even if it wasn’t as much money, it would be worth it.”

Students say they appreciate the fuller picture EdPays gives them of what’s out there.

And school officials say those for whom the tool may really help are the hundreds of students who have never considered options beyond high school. Gateway counselors plan to push it hard next year with 9th graders as a way to motivate students.

Lt. Gov. Garcia said many kids who would be the first in their families to go to college sometimes question why they should go to college and how they will benefit.

“We want to make it very clear to them,” he said. “They don’t all need to go, for example, to CU or the School of Mines, they can go to Metro State or CU or Community College of Aurora, or any number of other institutions  that will get different credentials that will all help them to have a better and more productive life. “