This study uses data compiled by the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF) to identify degree programs at Alaska’s public universities that leave their students with excessive student loan debt relative to their early-career earnings by comparing both metrics. Many students and parents rely on Alaska’s public universities to provide a gateway to promising careers at a reasonable cost, but some programs fail to deliver and saddle students with debt they’re unlikely to be able to repay.
College-bound students and their parents should ask themselves whether they should go to a particular college for a particular credential and major in a particular subject based on their future ability to afford their student loan debt.
Colleges should use these data to better serve their students. At any given college, some programs prepare students for life after graduation better than others. Responsible colleges will seek opportunities to expand successful programs and phase out programs that fail to prepare students for success.
Policymakers should use these data to improve accountability. University-level accountability is too broad and leads to punishing successful programs at struggling colleges while failing to hold accountable low-performing programs at good colleges. Having program-level data allows policymakers to target guidelines at specific programs and reward only the successful programs. Second, student loan debt and post-graduation earnings are rarely a factor in current accountability structures nationwide, and having this information allows policymakers to incorporate real-world outcomes into accountability.
Most of the analyzed programs prepare students for careers more than sufficient to pay off their student debt. However, identifying only one low-performing program at Alaska’s public universities does not mean that the rest are high performing. Only 30 out of almost 250 degree-granting programs were included in this data set due to privacy suppressions.
We identify one low-performing program — the Bachelor of Arts in Fine and Studio Arts at the University of Alaska Anchorage — that leaves about 25 graduates each year with excessive debt relative to earnings. An average UAA graduate with a Fine and Studio Arts degree makes about $16,000 with debt more than double their earnings at $36,000.
Due to the lack of data, all students should be skeptical about any projected earnings that apply to a university or an entire field of study and consider carefully how their choice of college and major may affect their future earnings. While there is evidence that 25 of the 30 programs examined here prepare students well for post-graduation careers, 305 programs could not report data. Due to the lack of data, Alaska ranks at the bottom of the state-by-state ranking. Students should attempt to find more information on post-graduation earnings and debt from admissions officers and departmental advisors before enrolling in one of these programs.
Data Sources, Definitions, and Coverage
The data used in this report are from the U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard program-level data (U.S. Department of Education, n.d.), and the data definitions and descriptions are summarized from the technical report (U.S. Department of Education, 2022). The author is responsible for analysis, calculations, and all other information.
Data is reported by degree program, which is a combination of credential, college, and major. For instance, students studying for a Bachelor of Arts in History at the University of Alaska Anchorage are in a different program than students studying for a Bachelor of Arts in History at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
Of the 341 programs offered at all main and branch campuses, only 248 programs had graduates in the 2014-2015 and 2015-16 school years, the latest years with data. Programs with insufficient graduates, or insufficient graduates with earnings or student loan debt data, are suppressed by the U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard. Only 37 programs had enough graduates to release earnings data, while only 90 programs had enough graduates to release debt data. Of the 37 programs with earnings data and 90 programs with debt data, only 30 programs had both earnings and debt data. These programs represent about 3,200 graduates of the total 7,600 degrees awarded in the 2014-2015 and 2015-16 school years. The sample covers almost 43% of all degrees awarded and half of all bachelor’s degrees awarded at public universities in Alaska.
Because the data is collected by degrees awarded, not by unique students, some (but not all) students who double majored appear twice in the data. Another reason that some graduates are double counted is that they are grouped into two years of graduates, where one cohort graduated in 2014-2015 and the other cohort graduated in 2015-2016. The graduates from 2015 are counted twice.
Debt is the median cumulative amount borrowed by graduates through the Stafford or Graduate PLUS loan programs. It includes only loans taken out for the level of credential received at the institution the student graduated from. For instance, the debt for those who earned a master’s degree does not include any of their undergraduate debt. It does not include any Parent PLUS or Perkins loans, nor does it include any accrued interest.
Annual earnings are the median sum of wages, deferred compensation, and self-employment income. Earnings data cover all graduates who received federal financial aid but exclude those who died, those enrolled in postsecondary education, those who received a higher credential, and those who did not work during the measurement period. The data do not distinguish between students who stayed to work in Alaska and those who left to pursue opportunities elsewhere.
Unless otherwise noted, figures show the median among programs, while tables show an enrollment-weighted median. Additionally, all values are adjusted for inflation using the Personal Consumption Expenditures (PCE) index and are presented in 2021 dollars.
Debt as a Percent of Earnings
Students, parents, colleges, and policymakers can use these data on student loan debt and post-graduation earnings to make more informed decisions. While there are a variety of potential accountability metrics policymakers could implement, we use here the Debt as a Percent of Earnings (DPE) metric. DPE is the median student loan debt as a percent of median earnings three years after graduation. Lower DPE indicates a better value for students. For illustrative purposes, a program with a median debt of $30,000 and median earnings of $30,000 would have a DPE of 100%, while a program with median earnings of $30,000 and median debt of $15,000 would have a DPE of 50%.
Andrew Gillen, the author of the TPPF report, offers a set of recommendations for viewers to understand DPE as a range of performance categories and introduce an accountability system. An accountability system is necessary for policymakers to reward or phase out individual programs against a clear set of standards for earnings and debt; colleges also benefit from having expectations for the post-graduation outcomes and incurred debt from individual programs, not simply at the university level.
- Reward (DPE <= 75%).
- Graduates from these programs are prepared for success, with high earnings relative to debt. Gillen suggests these programs could be rewarded with performance bonus funding and/or exemptions from standard regulatory oversight.
- Monitor (DPE between 76% and 100%).
- Most graduates from these programs are likely set up for success, but some may have excessive debt. These programs should be monitored but otherwise not interfered with.
- Sanction (DPE between 101% and 125%).
- Too many graduates from these programs have excessive debt. These programs should face sanctions ranging from reduced funding to enrollment restrictions.
- Sunset (DPE > 125%).
- Most graduates from these programs have excessive debt, and many are unlikely to be able to repay their student loan debt. These programs should be phased out by preventing the enrollment of new students.
The data provided by TPPF shows that almost all the programs with sufficient data to be examined had a DPE ratio of around 50%, with some extending toward 40% and 80%. These DPE ratios fall between the reward and monitor categories, with most graduates showing high earnings relative to their debt. However, one program (the Bachelor’s in Fine and Studio Arts at the University of Alaska Anchorage) was a clear outlier, with a DPE ratio of almost 235% — graduates owe well over twice their average annual earnings. A DPE ratio above 125% is suggested as a program to sunset by preventing new enrollment, indicating that students graduate with excessive debt, and many are unlikely to be able to repay their student loan debt.
Table 1 shows the number of Alaska higher education programs within each performance category by the level of degree. Associate degrees perform better than bachelor’s degrees, with no low-performing programs and only one to be monitored, the associate degree in Accounting and Related Services from the University of Alaska Anchorage. Bachelor’s degrees reported one program, the bachelor’s in Fine and Studio Arts from the University of Alaska Anchorage, in the sunset performance category, and three to be monitored. Note that there were no doctoral degree programs with sufficient information to categorize.
The NA column lists the number of programs whose data was suppressed to protect student privacy. Because many programs have small enrollment, this gives a skewed impression of how comprehensive the Department of Education data is. Table 2 shows the number of graduates in 2014-15 and 2015-16 instead of the number of programs. While only 30 programs are represented by the data, 43% of graduates attended these programs. This means that about 2 in 5 of all graduates are covered by the data set. Almost 47% of associate graduates attended a program with data and 49% of bachelor’s students attended a program with data. Only 230 master’s graduates attended a program with data. Note that graduate degrees are less comprehensively covered due to small program sizes.
Table 2 shows that only 70 graduates from associate’s programs may have trouble paying their loans (with a DPE in the monitor range), while 310 graduates from bachelor’s programs might have difficulty, and 49 graduates are almost certain to.
There is an enormous variation in performance by field as well as by the level of degree. Figure 1 shows the 50 largest academic fields in Alaska, although only 21 fields have sufficient graduates to not be suppressed. The four fields at the top of the figure have excellent outcomes and no graduates from suppressed programs, which makes them a fantastic choice for students considering going to college in these fields. The fields are Finance and Financial Management Services; Business, Management, Marketing, and Related Support Services, Other; Management Sciences and Quantitative Methods; and Health/Medical Preparatory Programs. In fact, the program with the smallest DPE ratio (22%) is the Associate degree in Allied Health and Medical Assisting Services from the University of Alaska Anchorage, with median earnings of $60,800 and median debt of $13,400.
Three-quarters of graduates in the field of biology came from a program to monitor, including notably the General Biology bachelor’s degrees at both the University of Alaska Anchorage and the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Almost 3 in 5 graduates in the field of Fine and Studio Arts came from a program to sunset, while the remainder came from programs too small to evaluate. These fields are risky to students that may not be unable to pay off their student loans.
Table 3 lists the five programs that have a DPE status of Monitor, Sanction, or Sunset as well as graduates’ median earnings, median debt, median monthly debt payment, and the program’s DPE ratio. Four of the worst five programs are bachelor’s degrees, and two are in the biological sciences.
Table 4, in contrast, lists the top five programs to reward ranked as programs with the lowest DPE ratio. Of the top-value degrees, three are associate degrees and one is a master’s degree.
The U.S. Department of Education data tracks the middle earnings of graduates from different programs three years after graduation. The distribution of earnings at Alaska public universities shows three-quarters of graduates reporting earnings between $37,500 and $66,000. The lower end of the salary range is enough to sustain a single adult before taxes and after adjusting for Alaska’s cost of living, while the upper end of the range can sustain a family of three with only one working adult. The fact that most graduates can support themselves and a small family within the first few years of graduation is good news, as earning potential usually increases with more work experience after graduation.
Table 5 shows that while bachelor’s-degree holders earned a median of almost $58,000 across all fields of study, the additional payoff of earning a master’s degree was slight: master’s-degree holders earned only $650 more. The additional payoff from obtaining a bachelor’s degree over an associate degree was $8,300 on average.
Some associate degrees have middle post-graduation earnings higher than the return for bachelor’s degrees, including Allied Health and Medical Assisting Services at UAA, Industrial Production Technologies/Technicians at UAF, and Health/Medical Preparatory Programs at UAA. Students and parents should ask themselves whether they should go to a particular college for a particular credential and major in a particular subject.
A crucial question of affordability remains the student-loan debt burden to be paid off from these earnings, so students and parents considering one of the programs ranked in this analysis should examine its Debt as a Percent of Earnings ratio rather than raw debt and earnings calculations.
The U.S. Department of Education tracks total student loan debt by program. While there are programs with high student loan debt, this is unusual. Most programs have a debt of around $25,000. Table 6 shows the middle student loan debt for Alaska college graduates. Associate degrees incur less debt than bachelor’s and master’s degrees, while the difference in debt between bachelor’s degrees and master’s degrees is negligible.
Tables 5 and 6 show that associate degree holders typically earn somewhat less than bachelor’s and master’s degree holders, but they also incurred substantially less debt. The difference in earnings between bachelor’s and master’s degrees, however, was slight, while the debt incurred for each degree is the same.
Figure 2 shows a state ranking of public higher education systems based on the number of programs in each performance category. Alaska ranked 50th because most Alaska programs had their privacy suppressed. Rhode Island placed first in the ranking, followed by New York and New Jersey. This ranking shows the proportion of programs within a state that are generally a good bet, but students should consult individual university and program-level data.
Figure 2: State Ranking of Public Higher Education Systems based on student loan debt-to-earnings tests for college graduates
Having detailed program-level data changes the question students should be asking from, “Should I go to college?” to “Should I go to college for a particular major at a particular university?” Policymakers, too, should reframe their vision of accountability to provide clear and transparent guidelines for colleges to follow as they allocate funding.
While students and parents may rest assured that 25 of the 30 programs with sufficient data at public universities in Alaska prepare students for a promising career after graduation, one program — the Bachelor’s in Fine and Studio Arts at the University of Alaska Anchorage — reported a DPE ratio of 234%, which suggests graduates from these programs are burdened with more than twice their annual earnings in student debt and are unlikely to be able to pay it off. Students should be wary of enrolling in programs that saddle them with debt without preparing them for careers sufficient to pay off that debt. The University of Alaska Anchorage should attempt to improve or phase out this program and policymakers should hold it accountable for making improvements.
Of the worst-performing five programs at Alaska’s public universities, four were at the bachelor’s level and two were in the field of biological sciences. Of the five best-performing programs at Alaska’s public universities, three were associate degrees and one was a master’s degree. While students should always consider carefully the university and field of study they wish to pursue, the associate degrees examined here prepared their students for high-earning careers while incurring less student loan debt overall.
In fact, several associate-level programs reported median earnings well above the median earnings for a bachelor’s degree. Further, the increase in earnings from having a master’s degree was only $650 over a bachelor’s degree earnings, while incurring as much debt as a bachelor’s degree. And because a master’s degree is always in addition to holding a bachelor’s degree, doubling one’s debt for a small increase in post-graduation earnings may not be worth it for most students.
However, the data gathered covers only 43% of Alaska’s public college graduates and 30 programs. Finding evidence of only one program failing to prepare its students does not mean that the rest are good values. Before enrolling in one of the 305 programs that could not be examined here, students should attempt to gain information about post-graduation earnings, job prospects, and student-loan debt burdens from admissions officers and departmental advisors.
The appendix details the breakdown of programs into their performance categories by the level of credential. Table A1 lists associate degrees, of which 7 had sufficient graduates to rate. Although associate degree programs are available at Alaska Vocational Technical Center and Ilisagvik College, there were not enough graduates to rank any. All associate degrees were in the reward or monitor performance categories.
Table A2 shows the three main University of Alaska campuses—the University of Alaska Anchorage, the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and the University of Alaska Southeast—and the performance categories of their available bachelor’s degrees. The one program with sufficient data to rank at the University of Alaska Southeast is to be rewarded.
Gillen, A. (2022). College Student Loan Debt as a Percent of Earnings: 2022. Texas Public Policy Foundation. https://www.texaspolicy.com/college-student-loan-debt-as-a-percent-of-earnings-2022/
Gillen, A. (2022a). Holding Colleges Accountable For Excessive Student Loan Debt: 2022. Texas Public Policy Foundation. https://www.texaspolicy.com/holding-colleges-accountable-for-excessive-student-loan-debt-2022/
Gillen, A. (2022b). State Ranking of Public Higher Education Based on Student Loan Debt And Earnings: 2022. Texas Public Policy Foundation. https://www.texaspolicy.com/state-ranking-of-public-higher-education-based-on-student-loan-debt-and-earnings-2022/
U.S. Department of Education. (n.d.). College scorecard [Data set]. https://collegescorecard.ed.gov/data/
U.S. Department of Education. (2021). Technical documentation: College scorecard data by field of study. https://collegescorecard.ed.gov/assets/FieldOfStudyDataDocumentation.pdf