The Impact of Geography on the Potential Usefulness of Wage Data: The Choice Deserts Study

Author: Laura Gogia, MD/PhD
January 6, 2017

The Impact of Geography on the Potential Usefulness of Wage Data: The Choice Deserts Study Author: Laura Gogia Date: January 6, 2017

Policymakers from both parties agree that students need better information on the educational quality and student outcomes of higher education institutions when they are deciding where to go to college. Many believe that institutional transparency - and the ability to compare institutional performances across standardized metrics - encourages competition between institutions that may result in increased quality and lower costs. These assumptions have driven recent decisions by the U.S. Department of Education as well as a growing number of state governments to collect and publish post-completion student wage data at the institutional and, in some cases, individual program levels.

While more and higher quality data generally facilitates better informed decisions, little empirical evidence exists to suggest that publishing wage data improves the ability of high school seniors to make good choices about institutions of higher education or programs of study. This knowledge gap is the focus of a recent Urban Institute study, Choice Deserts: How Geography Limits the Potential Impact of Earnings Data on Higher Education. The study, which analyzed SCHEV and VLDS data on students who graduated from Virginia high schools in 2011 and 2012, indicates that wage data may be less useful for more students deciding where to attend college than had been previously assumed. However, the study also concluded there are important reasons to report these data beyond comparing colleges and universities to each other. Finally, it offered recommendations for refining federal and state data collection on post-completion wages to be even more useful for potential and current students, institutional leadership, and policymakers.

Virginia was chosen for analysis because SCHEV is one of only two state agencies in the country that generates post-completion wage data at the program level for every public and private nonprofit college in the state. Additionally, the student level data available through VLDS enabled researchers to investigate the intersections between geography (e.g. the locations of student domiciles and postsecondary educational institutions), academic preparation (e.g. the completion of and performance on college entrance exams), institutional program offerings, and availability of post-completion wage data. The ability to analyze these intersections in a statewide, longitudinal fashion allowed researchers to demonstrate the significant impact of student mobility and institutional selectivity on college decision making, impact that cannot be easily influenced or reversed by post-completion wage data.

Prior research indicates that students generally attend colleges and universities close to home (median distance between a student domicile and their institution of higher education is eight and 18 miles for students attending 2-year and 4-year institution, respectively; average distances are 31 and 82 miles, respectively). The current analysis indicates that nearly two thirds of Virginia students live in either an “education desert” or “choice desert.” An education desert is a geographic area in which there are no academic programs available within a preferred area of study; a choice desert has only one program option or insufficient wage data to support meaningful comparison across two or more programs. Therefore, because students tend to attend schools near their home and so many students live in education or choice deserts, only 36% of students can use wage data as it was intended: to compare programs of study across multiple colleges or universities. The study goes on to suggest that students who might benefit from access to wage data are those who are mobile, urban-dwelling, more academically prepared, and seeking bachelor’s degrees. In contrast, only 4% of students who are seeking to attend a community college close to home can use wage data to compare programs at two or more institutions.

According to study author, Matt Chingos, “These findings throw some cold water on policy efforts to use consumer information as a key strategy in higher education reform – a strategy that has been at the center of the Obama Administration’s efforts as well as those of a bipartisan group of senators. I still think information provision is an important role for the government to play, but this work has convinced me that policymakers should not put so many of their eggs in this basket.”

The study identifies other ways in which wage data may be meaningful for individual students, institutional leaders, and policymakers. For some students, particularly those who only have one realistic option, wage data might help them decide if they want to attend college or wait until circumstances surrounding their matriculation change. Furthermore, students who have already matriculated can use it to make decisions related to programs of study or future career tracks. Finally, institutional leaders and policy makers can use wage data to better understand the economic conditions of recent college graduates or needs for academic programming in certain geographic regions and job market sectors.

The Choice Deserts: How Geography Limits the Potential Impact of Earnings Data on Higher Education can be found online at

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES: Fain, P. (December, 16, 2016). Choice deserts. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from; Chingos, M. & Blagg, K. (January 3, 2017). Making college earnings data work for students. Education Next. Retrieved from:



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