Finding 3. Not all Public Schools are Created Equal

30th March 2022

Finding 3. Not all Public Schools are Created Equal
  • At 9% percent of schools, students had less than a shot at earning more than a high school graduate six years after they enrolled.

Given the poor wage outcomes, many students from four-year public institutions are unable to begin paying down their loans within three years.

It's no surprise that if a large number of students who have taken out loans to attend college are unable to find decent-paying jobs, they would also struggle to begin making payments on their debt after leaving school. To assess the financial health of loan-holding students, the College Scorecard also examines what percentage of a school's students with loans are able to begin repayment-meaning they are able to pay at least one dollar towards their principal balance-three years after those loans become due.

  • At the average four-year public institution, the repayment rate is 77.8%. That means nearly one-quarter of students are unable to begin paying down their loans three years after leaving school. (This figure omits those who are enrolled in graduate school as full-time students.)
  • At 165 of the 535 schools (30.8%), at least one-quarter of students were not able to begin paying down their loans after three years.

Certainly these wage outcomes are not what we would expect out of a public higher education system in which we invest billions of federal dollars each year. However, it should be noted that these figures are almost identical to the earnings and repayment rates found at our country's four-year private, non-profits (where at the average institution, 62.6% of students are earning more than $25,000/year six years after enrollment vs. 63.5% at the publics, and 80.9% of students are able to begin repayment three years out vs. 77.8% at the publics). Unfortunately, undergraduate students at these private, non-profit universities borrow 50% more cumulatively than their public university peers, an issue that becomes most problematic for students who do not complete college. 22 In fact, those who attend four-year private, non-profit colleges but do not graduate have an average cumulative debt-to-annual-income ratio of 51% compared to only 34% for non-completers from four-year public institutions. 23 So while we must demand more accountability from all of our colleges and universities to ensure students are graduating and being equipped with the skills they need to earn decent wages and pay back their loans, the public institutions are at least doing more to ensure their students are taking on a lower debt load in the first place.

There are notable exceptions.

There are a handful of schools that are consistently setting their students on a pathway towards higher wages and equipping them with the ability to repay their loans, including 51 public institutions where more than three-quarters of students are earning salaries above what is expected of a high school graduate, and 80 institutions where more than 9 in 10 students are entering into repayment within three years.

Notably, five schools within the top decile of the earnings measure take in an above-average number of students receiving Pell grants (>38.2%):

There are also a handful of schools with exceptionally high repayment rates for students, including The College of New Jersey (96.1%), James Madison University (95.7%), and College of William and Mary (95.6%). However, even more notable are the 90 public institutions that have a repayment rate above the national average for four-year public institutions (77.8%) and take in an above-average number of Pell students (>38.2%). It is clear from these examples that student success is possible, and some schools are delivering much greater value than others.