Is college worth the financial investment?
The answer is that it's complicated and depends on the school, according to the College Scorecard, an online tool that has been updated with additional college-specific information about student costs, loans and potential earning power.
The searchable data -- found at collegescorecard.ed.gov -- is based on U.S. Education Department and Treasury Department information from students who received federal financial aid.
It includes median earnings of former students a decade after they entered college, regardless of whether they graduated, along with median monthly education loan payments. The new data also break down how much the college is expected to cost depending on a family's income.
Meanwhile, students at selective UC Irvine paid on average about $11,944 a year. Typical earnings of former students: $55,800.
UCI was singled out by the Obama administration as one of a handful of "engines of opportunity" for providing affordable education to low-income students. Students from families making less than $30,000 a year pay about $8,096 a year to attend UCI, according to the College Scorecard.
Cal State Fullerton had average annual costs of $9,034 and typical salaries of $46,500.
Loren Blanchard, executive vice chancellor for academic and student affairs in the 23-campus Cal State system, said families are increasingly looking for hard data when they make their decisions. He said the entire system fared well when it came to affordability and earnings of graduates.
"It's a good-news story," said Blanchard.
There are plenty of caveats about the data.
They track the performance only of those students who received federal money to attend college. They provide one single earning number for an entire institution -- regardless of whether the student studied chemical engineering or philosophy.
Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education, acknowledged the interest in having accurate data about earnings for college graduates. But she said the scorecard needs work.
"Developing a system of this size and scope is a complicated and nuanced endeavor, and the department has done so without any external review," she said.
The most expensive four-year college in Orange County was West Coast University's Anaheim campus, where students pay an average of $40,370 a year. Students who graduate from that for-profit campus typically carry about $34,000 in federal loan debt. No salary information was available.
West Coast spokeswoman Andrea Burgess said the cost reflects high-tech health care education programs that are "intensive and designed to fit the needs of aspiring and working health care professionals."
She noted that 93 percent of former students are paying their loans, a higher-than-average rate, according to the new data. "This data point is an important reflection on our graduates' ability to secure employment and pay their student debt," Burgess said.
The second most expensive four-year college was the private nonprofit Chapman University, which has an average annual cost of $33,821. Median earnings of former students are $51,800.
There were plenty of unsurprising findings in the data. The schools that produced the highest earners among student borrowers and grant recipients included traditional elite universities such as Harvard, Stanford and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
But the data also show that the classic adage repeated to high school students -- go to college to get a higher-paying job -- doesn't apply to every school. Officials found that fewer than half of students at hundreds of colleges -- many of them cosmetology schools and for-profit colleges -- earned more than $25,000 per year.
In Orange County, former students of Coastline Community College in Fountain Valley reported the lowest earnings, $30,500. Only 56 percent of Coastline students earned more than the average high school graduate, according to the College Scorecard. A Coastline spokeswoman did not return calls for comment Monday afternoon.
The Obama administration originally wanted to use the data to create a college rating system. But officials this summer abandoned that plan, which was deeply unpopular with universities, and instead simply released the data.
"The beauty of this is that it's really the family that's doing the ranking," said Ed Sullivan, assistant vice chancellor for academic research and resources in the CSU system.
A variety of private data companies, including Pay-Scale and College Abacus, plan to incorporate the new information in their own report cards on college performances.
UC President Janet Napolitano was an outspoken critic of the administration's original rating system. But on Monday, she expressed support for the revised scorecard.
"The University of California is one of the best values in higher education," Napolitano said in a statement. "The newly released scorecard showcases the excellent performance of all 10 of our campuses in the areas measured, including cost, graduation rates and student debt levels. I hope this scorecard will help to improve accountability -- at all institutions -- for the billions of student aid dollars distributed by the U.S. Department of Education."
©2015 The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.