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Salary Surfer site helps students gauge potential future earnings

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California community college students have a new website to help them choose fields of study — and provide a preview of their potential earning power.

The Salary Surfer provides information on median annual incomes for 179 popular programs of study spanning health, business, social sciences, architecture, engineering and other disciplines.

The goal is to help students make more-informed decisions about their education, said Community Colleges Chancellor Brice Harris, who introduced the website at a news conference Wednesday at Grossmont College in El Cajon.

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“This is a groundbreaking tool … that shows the return on investment for our students is really remarkable,” Harris said. “It’s important to note that we don’t encourage students to make career decisions based solely on compensation. This is just one tool. They need to pay attention to their own passions and interests as well.”

The website, a collaboration between the two-year system and the California Employment Development Department, shows aggregated earnings for community college graduates two years before they got certificates or degrees and earnings two years and five years afterward.

Among those working in biotechnology, for instance, the median annual income was $12,695 two years before earning an associate degree, $44,562 two years afterward and $55,673 five years later.

Associates degrees with the highest incomes after five years were electrical and power systems transmission at $96,200, physician assistant at $95,700 and radiation therapy technician at $91,300.

The data do not include earnings for students who transferred to four-year universities or who are self-employed, work for the federal government or work out of state.

The website can be used in various ways to help employers gauge supply and demand and the effectiveness of community college vocational programs, said David Rattray, senior vice president of education and workforce development for the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce.

“Our intention is to promote this broadly in the business community,” Rattray said. “I’d love to see Cal State and UC continue in the same direction. Connecting employment data to education data is historic and should be followed by the other [two] segments.”

The Salary Surfer follows the release in April of the Student Success Scorecard, which uses a variety of data to measure student outcomes at all 112 community colleges. Both are part of efforts to make the junior college system more transparent and accountable, Harris said.

But some said the new tool, while useful, is not enough to show how well individual campuses are doing in moving students into the workforce.

“It’s a great first step, but we need to go one step further because ultimately we need to know how well we’re preparing students for industry,” said Leticia Barajas, vice president of academic affairs and workforce development at Los Angeles Trade Technical College. “It doesn’t give us a pulse on how well Trade Tech is doing in filling labor needs or how well students are faring after being placed. …Of my graduates in 2013, how many actually got a job within six months? That should be a performance metric.”

Still, some students said the salary tool would help in making tough decisions about their time and resources.

“It gives everybody an idea of what salary is out there for all different fields,” said retired Navy medic Gary Mihalko, who’s now in the Grossmont cardiovascular program, where potential earnings range from about $62,000 to $72,000, according the data. “In the medical field, yes, everybody wants to make a lot of money … but you also have to have some idea of what area you want to go into. In my field, I’d hate to think of somebody going in for the money and not caring about patients.”

carla.rivera@latimes.com


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