If you’re saving for your children’s higher education, have you ever wondered how various colleges could influence their future earnings? Or if you’re in college or paying down college debt, have you wondered what your future would look like if you’d attended a different school?

This April, the Brookings Institution published a report titled “Beyond College Rankings” that outlines how more than 7,000 colleges contribute to the future economic success of their students.

The report had data for seven four-year schools in Maine. It found the University of New England in Biddeford had a great influence on its graduates’ economic future, in addition to Colby College in Waterville, Bates College in Lewiston, and the University of Maine in Orono. (Bowdoin College in Brunswick wasn’t analyzed.)

Alumni at the University of Maine at Augusta and the University of Southern Maine earned slightly more than those who graduated from like institutions. The study reported University of Maine at Farmington alumni earned less mid-career than graduates from the average institution with similar characteristics.

Instead of examining a few hundred selective schools, as other rankings such as U.S. News & World Report and Forbes do, researchers Jonathan Rothwell and Siddharth Kulkarni broadened their approach and applied a “value-added” measure.

What is the difference between alumni outcomes (such as salaries) versus the outcomes one would reasonably expect from similar students enrolled in similar schools?

In other words, they adjusted for the wealth and academic traits of students who were accepted to the schools, so as not to reward highly selective schools that can admit students who would do well anywhere. They tried to isolate the influence the institution had on the future of its students, as measured by their incomes, occupations and loan repayment rates later in life.

“Value-added, in this sense, captures the benefits that accrue from both measurable aspects of college quality, such as graduation rates and the market value of the skills a college teaches, as well as unmeasurable ‘x factors,’ like exceptional leadership or teaching, that contribute to student success,” the researchers wrote.

Three of the top six four-year institutions that Brookings found add most to a graduate’s mid-career earnings have a technology bent: the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California; Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts; and Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, Indiana.

But the other three in the top six were liberal arts colleges: Colgate University in Hamilton, New York; Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota; and Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia.

The researchers found five factors within a school’s control are strongly associated with students’ later economic success:

The value of the curriculum: The labor market value of the school’s mix of course offerings and majors.

Alumni skills: The market value of specific qualifications that alumni list on their resumes, as shown on the graduates’ LinkedIn pages.

STEM orientation: The percentage of graduates graduating in science, technology, engineering and math fields.

Completion rates: The percentage of graduates earning their degrees within four years for a two-year college and eight years for a four-year college.

Student aid: The average financial aid support offered by the college.

“The college economic value-added metrics developed here have important limitations, but they are available for a world of community colleges and nonselective colleges that conventional rankings fail to explore. And the metrics more accurately predict economic outcomes than the popular rankings, calling into question whether the latter measure anything useful beyond student competence at the time of admission,” the researchers wrote.

Some questioned whether the study merely showed what many already know — that technology- and science-based careers pay more.

While the report does explain what is common knowledge, the differences between colleges with similar courses are still substantial, Robert Kelchen, an assistant professor of education leadership, management and policy at Seton Hall University, told Inside Higher Ed.

Find the full list of rankings, and search for Maine colleges, by clicking here.

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Erin Rhoda

Erin Rhoda is the editor of Maine Focus, a team that conducts journalism investigations and projects at the Bangor Daily News. She also writes for the newspaper, often centering her work on domestic and...