Students can now see exactly how much they can expect to earn based on college, major and degree—here's how

Michael Horn: How to tell if your degree is worth the money
Michael Horn: How to tell if your degree is worth the money

Financing a college degree is a complicated investment. Students need to weigh how much it will cost, how long it will take to graduate and how much they can expect to earn after graduation to assess the value of their educational investment. Unfortunately, until very recently, this information has been difficult to find.

When it comes to college, "we know a lot about the inputs," Jon Marcus, higher education editor at The Hechinger Report, previously told CNBC Make It. "We know a lot about the quality of the students who apply to and enroll at colleges and universities. We don't always know what they get out of it."

In 2013, the Obama administration took steps to change that, when it announced the creation of the College Scorecard, which could be used as a "Consumer Report" for colleges. The College Scorecard would have information about graduation rates, tuition costs and graduate earnings.

Now, after years of data collection, students can use the College Scorecard to see the exact earnings of graduates broken down by school and by program.

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"Every student is unique," said Education Secretary Betsy DeVos in a release. "What they study, as well as when, where and how they choose to pursue their education will impact their future."

Considering there is typically a wide range in how much graduates earn based on what they study and what fields they pursue careers in, the College Scorecard data can help students make informed decisions about what to pursue.

While salary comparison sites can offer similar information, the new data is the first time such detailed information has been consolidated, verified and published by a governmental organization.

"Choosing a major might seem like no big deal, but it's one of the few choices you make as a 19- or 20-year-old that can have an outsized impact on your entire career — and possibly your whole life," Chris Kolmar, co-founder of career planning site Zippia, told CNBC Make It. "When you're selecting a college major, you should consider how that choice will set you up for your career. If you're looking to snag a high-paying job out of college, you should ideally look for a subject you're passionate about, but that there's also a market for on the hiring front."

Students can now use the College Scorecard to see the median earnings and median debt of a school's graduates, based on their chosen field of study. Here's how:

Search by school

The "Name Search" section of the College Scorecard let's students type in the name of their school to can see how much graduates with different degrees earn.

For example, let's say a student plans to attend The University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. The median annual salary one year after earning a degree from the University of Michigan ranges from $19,200 to $86,900, depending on the field of study.

To learn more about how much Michigan graduates from different programs earn, students should go to the "Fields of Study" section where they can rank each of the school's 313 fields of study by size, earnings and debt levels.

Search by program

Another way students can use the new tool is by using the "Custom Search" feature, which allows students to input where they want to study, what field they want to study and what degree (certificate, associate's or bachelor's) they want to earn.

Students can also filter schools by graduation rate and average annual cost. This can help students exclude programs that fail to graduate a significant portion of their students on time, or ones that are outside a desired price range.

How to use this information

Once students have gathered information about schools they are interested in, how much they cost and how much graduates earn, they can make a more informed decision about how much debt they can take on and reasonably pay back after graduation.

Michael B. Horn, co-founder of the Clayton Christensen Institute, told CNBC Make It that students should think about how much their monthly student loan payments will be after college, which ideally wouldn't be more than 10 to 15% of their paychecks after graduation.

"You really want to be mindful that you're not crossing that threshold of payments that are just going to crush your income because they're taking up, say, 20%, 30% of your monthly paycheck," he said. "If you're in that realm, you're going to have problems in the long run."

Horn also stressed that students should pay attention to a school's graduation rate, which often gets overlooked in the college search process.

"The most crippling debt is when you don't complete [a degree]," he explained. "If [students] don't [finish] it can be crippling because they're not going to have the wage bump from getting that college credential and so you're going to be earning roughly as much as someone with a high school diploma is, but you have taken out $10,000 in debt."

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, just 41% of first-time full-time college students earn a bachelor's degree in four years, and only 59% earn a bachelor's in six years. Economists point to several reasons why four-year college graduation rates in the U.S. are so low including a lack of preparedness among students, financial barriers and limited school resources, especially at public institutions.

However, the best colleges in the country consistently graduate more than 90% of students in six years.

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