Did You Know? States Ranked by Debt and Earnings

Last October, the Texas Public Policy Foundation released its national report on the state rankings for public higher education. The ranking is based on median student loan debt and median earnings for university graduates. 

The report uses the U.S Department of Education College Scorecard to determine median student loan debt and median earnings. The median student loan debt was measured at graduation for the class of 2014-2015 for students that took out federal loans. While median earnings were also measured for students that took out federal loans–two years after graduation (2016-2017). 

Using the median earnings and median debt, the different university programs such as associate’s degrees and bachelor’s degrees, were given a score: both a debt-to-earnings ratio and a Gainful Employment Equivalent Rating (GEE). The debt-to-earnings ratio was categorized into four levels (Reward, Monitor, Sanction, Sunset) and GEE ratings were ranked into three levels (Pass, Probation, Fail). Then, each university program in each state was ranked with a performance rating based on both the debt-to-earnings ratio and GEE rating. The five final performance ratings for university programs were “excellent,” “good,” “mediocre,” “poor,” and “terrible.”

The only way for a program to earn an “excellent” rating is to receive a “reward” rating for its debt-to-earnings ratio and to receive a “pass” for its GEE rating. 

All 50 states were ranked based on performance percentages, or according to the performance rating that programs were assigned and how many programs were assigned to each performance rating in each state. For instance, the number one ranked state in the report is North Dakota, where:

  • 91 percent of university programs were ranked as “excellent” and 
  • 9 percent were ranked as “mediocre.” 

While the worst-ranked state was Montana, where 

  • 51 percent of university programs were ranked as “excellent,” 
  • 4 percent were ranked as “good,” 
  • 36 percent were ranked as “mediocre,” 
  • 8 percent were ranked as “poor,” 
  • 1 percent were ranked as “terrible.”

The report also ranked states based on the performance of associate’s degree programs and the performance of bachelor’s degree programs. At a national level, associate’s degree programs did very well. Thirteen states tied for first place, with 100 percent of associate’s degree programs in those states receiving an “excellent” performance score, including Wyoming, Alaska, Utah, and Nevada. The state that ranked last was Montana, again, where 68 percent of associate’s programs were ranked as “excellent,” 14 percent were ranked as “good,” and 18 percent were ranked as “mediocre.”

For the bachelor’s degree ranking, the top 10 states had 80 percent or more bachelor’s programs with an “excellent” performance rating, with Minnesota ranking in first place out of all the states and Mississippi ranking last.  

Overall, North Carolina ranked 44th place.

  • 59 percent of all university programs in NC had an excellent performance rating
  • 6 percent had a good rating
  • 25 percent had a mediocre rating
  • 6 percent had a poor rating
  • 4 percent had a terrible rating

For associate’s degrees, NC ranked in 43rd place:

  • 84 percent of associate’s programs had an excellent performance rating
  • 6 percent had a good rating 
  • 8 percent had a mediocre rating

For bachelor’s degrees,  NC ranked in 37th place:

  • 55 percent of bachelor’s degrees had an excellent performance rating 
  • 4 percent had a good rating, 
  • 30 percent had a mediocre rating  
  • 7 percent had a poor rating
  • 3 percent had a terrible rating

The biggest culprit in North Carolina’s ranking is bachelor’s degrees and their lack of immediate return on investment (ROI). There are 438 reviewed bachelor’s programs in the report for North Carolina, and 229 of these degrees received an “excellent” score. However, 187 programs scored a “mediocre,” “poor,” or “terrible” rating. These programs, especially those in the “poor” and “terrible” category–which are considered “red flag” programs–should be either phased out or reevaluated to better prepare students for the workforce. Degrees in non-STEM subjects make up a big chunk of these “red flag” programs, such as a bachelor’s in Drama Theater Arts at East Carolina University, Music and Dance at UNC-Chapel Hill, Fine and Studio Arts and Social Work at North Carolina Central University, and Zoology/Animal Biology at North Carolina State University.

Examples of majors that largely perform well and were ranked as “excellent” include various STEM majors such as mathematics, computer science, chemistry, engineering, and health sciences. Some “excellent” performing non-STEM majors include business/marketing, history, and communication and media studies.

Natalia Mayorga recently graduated with a bachelor’s in psychology from UNC-Chapel Hill and is a Martin Center intern.