By: Lisa M. Krieger/Mercury News

As tuitions climb in a still-shaky economy, college is feeling less like Animal House and more like Career U.

To prove their worth, San Jose State and 19 other California State University campuses are leaders in a national movement to measure education in dollars and cents, publicizing the salaries of their graduates.

What’s a degree worth? It’s no longer measured by the number of days devoted to Milton, Marxism and margaritas. New data shows that the midcareer median salary of an SJSU graduate is $92,900 — 21 times the current $4,440 investment for annual tuition.

Starting salaries for SJSU grads, heavy on Silicon Valley engineers, are the second highest of all Cal State alums and higher than graduates of some UCs and many pricey private schools. Only Cal Poly San Luis Obispo ranks higher among the Cal State schools.

“Families want to see the rate of return on their investment,” said King Alexander, president of Cal State Long Beach, who with Cal State Chancellor Charles Reed is leading the campaign to measure a college degree like a mutual fund, IRA or 401(k).

“Educators have always said: ‘Trust us, it’s worth it.’ Now we can say ‘Here’s the data — make up your own mind.’ We think it shows that we’re a great bargain.”

It also emphasizes how some courses of study are more lucrative than others, and how some universities are even altering their curriculum to cater to the new way of measuring what a degree is

> worth.

So far, University of California schools and Stanford University have not followed Cal State’s lead in touting graduates’ median salaries, which are compiled by the Seattle-based compensation company

San Jose State, UC Berkeley and Stanford grads start out somewhat even in pay — but after two decades in the work force, Berkeley and Stanford grads were earning significantly more — $109,000 and $119,000, compared with $92,900 for

Tuition hikes coming

With tuitions soaring, value is hard to ignore. This month, Cal State leaders adopted a two-step undergraduate fee hike that will raise tuition by a combined 15 percent by next fall. UC leaders are looking at increasing fees 8 percent for next school year.

So, borrowing a page from Consumer Reports, the campuses seek to prove what they’re worth. For starters: College grads earn 1.8 times the average salary earned by those with only a high school diploma, and 2.5 times more than high school dropouts, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“Earnings are one of the real outcomes you can measure,” Cal State’s Alexander said. “And with high earnings come many other things. Graduates are good taxpaying citizens. Their homes are less likely to go into foreclosure. They read more. They have more leisure time, and contribute to their communities. There are huge spillover effects.”

Walnut Creek parent Marie Ciano, whose two sons attend San Jose State, concurs.

“I have been teaching high school physics for 38 years and have seen far too many students attend college only to end up with $80,000 in student loans and selling shoes at Nordstrom’s,” she said.

“I did not want my own children to make the same mistake, so their choice of majors and schools was with employability as a first priority,” she said. One son, an aviation engineer, works part-time at a job acquired through SJSU’s department of aviation. The second, a mechanical engineer, was accepted by UC but chose SJSU because it’s in Silicon Valley, she said.

But some say the value of a college degree can’t be measured by money alone. “It changes how you see the world, and gives you more options for what you want to do with life,” said San Jose State grad Joel Bridgeman, who grew up in a low-income Richmond neighborhood and is now considering law school.

Measuring success

Many universities have resisted using graduates’ salaries as a measure of “educational outcome.”

However, Cal State took the lead, in 2008 becoming the first and only university system in the nation to publish its graduates’ salary data. It’s available on a website launched after a federal commission called on colleges to do a better job of measuring and publicizing students’ academic success. Now other public schools are following Cal State’s example. Within the next six months, 300 public universities will post salary information compiled by

The data — which only includes graduates with bachelor’s degrees — shows that students with the greatest “return on investment” are those who do well in technical majors, such as science or engineering, at a rigorous public school.

For instance, graduates of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo earn just as much as graduates of the private Pomona College or University of Southern California — at less than half the cost. And the top 10 percent of students from Fresno State earn as much as midlevel students from Stanford, said Al Lee, director of quantitative analysis at

Reacting to recession

Some schools are even changing their course catalog. In Michigan, where the recession hit early and hard, Michigan State eliminated majors in American classics and the University of Michigan created 100 new courses in entrepreneurship. Minnesota’s state colleges distribute colorful graphics that list how many students pass professional licensing exams.

“Most parents don’t say, ‘Here’s $200,000, do whatever you want.’ There’s a utilitarian streak,” Lee said. “They ask, quite reasonably, ‘Will my child earn enough to make it worthwhile?’ ”

The highest-earning college graduates in the U.S. come from Harvey Mudd College, surpassing Harvard, Princeton and Stanford. This fact is attributed to its heavy focus on math, science and engineering — as well as a strong alumni base in Southern California, where salaries are high.

Students with the lowest “return on investment” are those who go into debt to finance a private education, then pursue nonlucrative careers like theater, he said. Even worse are those who never graduate.

“If you’re accepted by Stanford and get financial aid, it’s a slam dunk. You’ll be earning six- or seven-figure income, for little investment,” Lee said. “But families need to know that if their student does well at CSU-San Luis Obispo, or SJSU, they’ll still earn good pay.

“Education is not a consumable good, like a sports car,” he said. “It’s an investment in a child’s earning potential — and their future.”

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