Here is a new federal data base reporters can mine for religion angles

On September 12th, the U.S. Department of Education unveiled its revamped College Scorecard (click here to see it), a trove of online data to guide parents and students on where to enroll that can also be a source of religion angles. The Obama Administration wisely scrapped its controversial plan for a college rating system, something of a mission impossible, and instead compiled hard numbers that citizens can judge for themselves.

The broad economic context was analyzed that same weekend by National Public Radio’s Adam Davidson, writing in The New York Times Magazine. For example, median income adjusted for inflation has remained nearly flat since 1974 while tuition at private universities has roughly tripled, and has quadrupled at public universities. Meanwhile those pricey college degrees have increased in importance for many careers. As the new Web site proclaims, “On average, college graduates earn $1 million more over their lifetimes than high school graduates.”

Much of this information was already available in those ubiquitous college guidebooks or the College Navigator site from the government’s National Center for Education Statistics. But the new site crunches Internal Revenue Service data to report graduates’ earnings 10 years out and how many are managing to repay student loans.

The Chronicle of Higher Education, the field’s journalistic bible, notes an important gap: Those newly added numbers cover only students who received federal loans or grants. Also, they lump together all students at an institution while earnings vary wildly depending on academic subject. The American Council on Education complains that the feds produced this setup without any review by outside experts.

No religious campuses are among the feds’ list of 23 schools commended for low cost leading to high incomes. However, tiny (298 undergrads) Be’er Yaakov Talmudic Seminary in Spring Valley, New York, is among 30 highlighted for low cost and a high graduation rate -- but no number for alumni income is posted. (Graduate theology programs are not included.)

The key is that reporters now get to play around with this mountain of data. Random examples linked to the religion beat include:

*Brandeis University, a citadel of liberal Jewish culture, costs an average $29,578 (beyond aid), has a healthy graduation rate of 90 percent (within six years of enrollment), and 10 years after graduation alums earn a median $58,800 (compared with $34,343 for all college graduates). Orthodox Judaism’s Yeshiva University boasts a respectable $55,600 earning power, an 85 percent graduation rate, and a somewhat more economical $23,352 cost.

*Or look at the same data for Notre Dame, the Catholic Harvard, and Wheaton College of Illinois, the Harvard (some would say) of Evangelical Protestantism. The Catholic numbers are $27,845 cost, 95 percent graduation rate, and impressive median pay of $69,400. Wheaton is cheaper at $23,858, has an 89 percent graduation rate, but median earnings are only $42,600, no doubt reflecting numerous church and missionary careers.

*On the same three criteria, the Southern Baptists’ Baylor is relatively costly at $32,333, has a mere 75 percent graduation rate, and modest $49,100 in earnings, which may reflect Sunbelt wages. The Lutherans’ St. Olaf College, a rare “mainline” campus that retains some religious flavor, tracks closely with Wheaton, a tad more costly and a tad higher in earnings. 

You can search for religious affiliations by 62 categories. Did you know there are 49 colleges nominally affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (USA) -- though what does that mean?

Well, you can see the journalistic potential, though note that the Religion Guy ran into some glitches playing with the site, which badly needs a general “search” function.

Here is a non-religious detail too delicious to ignore.

The Obama Administration compiled these data partly in hopes of luring applicants away from for-profit colleges that candidate Hillary Clinton has likewise targeted. The Wall Street Journal focused on one such player, the Baltimore-based Laureate International University, with  five U.S. campuses, 24 in Europe, and 57 in the developing world. Before Hillary announced for president, this for-profit university paid husband Bill $16.5 million to lend his name as its “Honorary Chancellor,” and Laureate has donated between $1 million and $5 million to the Clinton Foundation.

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