PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Officials at the University of Maine at Presque Isle are furious over a report released late last month that they believe has them listed unfairly among five colleges with the lowest return on investment.
PayScale, a company that provides compensation data to individuals and employers, evaluated more than 1,000 colleges and universities across the United States and compared the average cost of getting a bachelor’s degree to median alumni lifetime earnings. The list attempts to illustrate what a graduate of each college should expect to earn over 30 years, after subtracting the cost of earning the degree and what would have been earned going to work right out of high school.
Several schools in the state are on the list, including state universities in Orono, Portland and Farmington and private colleges such as Bates, Bowdoin and Colby. All but UMPI showed a positive rate of return on a Maine resident’s investment in getting a college degree.
According to PayScale, the investment in an education at UMPI results in a negative rate of return over 30 years, meaning a person could have earned more going right to work after high school.
PayScale estimated the cost of an in-state resident obtaining a bachelor’s degree at UMPI at $79,330, accounting for tuition, fees, campus room and board, books and supplies. After predicting how much the graduate would have earned over the next 30 years, PayScale also determined that the same person going to work right out of high school would have earned $124,000 more, when subtracting the cost of the college education and adding wages for the 4 or 5 years it would have taken to get the degree.
Linda Schott, president of the northern Maine college, said that UMPI’s ranking was based on shoddy methodology.
“We did not even know that this study was taking place until the results started going around on Facebook,” she said recently. “We were very distressed. We have so many successful UMPI alumni and current students, and this type of headline is unfair to all of them.”
According to the company’s website, the methodology used to produce the package was multi-layered. The company gathered data through a survey sent out to college graduates who attended school and still worked in the United States. Graduates had to hold a bachelor’s degree — higher degree holders were excluded. The survey also was open only to graduates who were employed full-time and paid with either an hourly wage or an annual salary. Self-employed, project-based and contract employees could not take part.
Harvey Mudd College, a four-year private liberal arts college in Claremont, Calif., placed first on Payscale’s list, with its graduates earning a net return on investment of $2.113 million over 30 years.
Bates College in Lewiston was ranked 318, highest among the private Maine colleges on the list, with graduates earning on average a 30 year net return on investment of $681,200. UMaine was ranked highest among public universities in state at 515 with a 30 year net ROI of $568,000.
Payscale noted that UMPI, which it erroneously called the University of Maine at Presque Island, was the “only state school to make it into our bottom five.” It added that it is likely because the school graduates a large number of teachers, a profession that is “notoriously underpaid.”
Schott said that could be some, but not all, of the problem.
She said that some quick investigation by the college determined that only 28 UMPI alumni completed the survey for Payscale, and only 3 people provided salary information. The company based all of its information about the college on that small sample size.
Payscale’s rule allowing only U.S. graduates working in the U.S. into the report also affected UMPI’s results, according to Schott who noted that the college has a sizable amount of Canadian and international alumni. They were not counted.
“Also, if you look at the list, you see that the ones that are closer to the top are schools that have excellent engineering programs,” she said. “Engineers tend to make high salaries, while students who work in fields such as liberal arts, education, criminal justice and social work, do not. They are not highly compensated, but they are highly valued. But on a list like this, it looks like you’d get a bigger return on your investment if you went to the engineering school.”
She also stressed that the $79,330 cost figure used by the company in the report reflected the cost of living in the residence halls and enjoying the full meal plan, something that only approximately 300 of UMPI’s 1,500 students do each year.
Officials at Payscale did not respond to repeated requests for comment. Officials at other Maine colleges on the list declined requests to speak about Payscale’s report.
“The hard part for us is that when a report like this hits the news, people only hear the conclusions without all the ‘how they arrived at those conclusions,’” Schott said. “And that creates unnecessary harm for a small, hardworking institution like us. UMPI has been in the media many times highlighting the positive contributions our alumni, students, faculty and staff are making in this community and throughout the state. It would be unfair to allow one survey, completed by less than 30 UMPI alums, to define success at UMPI.”