The narrative is as familiar as it is inaccurate: Higher education isn’t doing enough to prepare graduates for the rest of their lives. According to this trope, institutions avoid the student-outcomes spotlight, afraid of data emerging that would harm their reputations.
Once you dig into the data, however, a very different dynamic emerges: Across the spectrum of higher education—including private liberal arts campuses and community colleges—institutions know more than ever about what their graduates do after graduation. Proactively tracking student outcomes and making their outcomes data widely available, these institutions are documenting their successes and demonstrating the broad impact that colleges and universities have on their graduates’ lives.
Higher education experts say several things have spurred the perception that institutions aren’t adequately preparing students for life after college, including the Great Recession, relatively high unemployment, rising tuition costs, and the idea that graduates’ skill sets are lagging.
The belief that colleges and universities should be doing more is “more noticeable right now because the economy has been so difficult,” said Andy Chan, vice president for personal and career development at Wake Forest University (NC). Philip D. Gardner, director of the Collegiate Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University, agrees that the recession is part of the equation. “Historically we look back at every recession, and there have always been doubters about the value of the degree,” Gardner said.
At the same time, tuition costs have also risen, leading students and parents to weigh the returns on their investment, said Joan C. Hawxhurst, director of the Center for Career and Professional Development at Kalamazoo College in Michigan. Aside from fiscal concerns, “folks are just recognizing that it’s in their best interest to understand more about the particulars of how a college education prepares a young person for [the] future,” she said.
Another factor, Chan said, is that career paths are less linear and less predictable: Workers used to hold jobs for 20 or 30 years, but now careers can change overnight due to buyouts or technology replacements. Placing all of the blame on higher education is unfair, said Chan, who pointed out that corporations are spending much less on training and want colleges and universities to pick up the slack. But he also believes institutions should do more to better prepare students. Likewise, Gardner said colleges and universities haven’t adapted fast enough in equipping students with skills they’ll need in the workplace.
But Peter Cappelli, the George W. Taylor Professor of Management and director of the Center for Human Resources at The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, has written a paper that says available evidence doesn’t support the idea of serious skill gaps or skill shortages in the United States workforce. Skill mismatches—where average workers and job candidates have more education than their current job requires—is actually “the prevailing situation in the U.S. labor market,” according to the paper.
“[T]here is a common core view among some people that the fact that there is so much unemployment among college grads is the fault of the colleges. It’s not true, but it is popular,” Cappelli said in an email exchange. “The big fact is that there really aren’t a lot of employer complaints. When you dig into the data a bit, the reports that employers are finding it hard to find some skills doesn’t indicate that this is a problem. It is simply a job search, and when there are lots of candidates, we take more time to search through them. It could be—and some of the employer surveys show this—that employers who are finding it hard to hire also admit that they are trying to pay below the market rate, that they are looking for strange skills based on work experience, and so forth.”
Developing Data, Nurturing Outcomes
Determining what happens to students after graduation “will become the wave of the future,” said George Kuh, director of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment, co-located at the University of Illinois and Indiana University. “Most institutions haven’t had enough data to tell a strong story, but most in the near-term will have to figure out how to do it.”
Some institutions and states are already collecting and sharing their outcomes data.
Kalamazoo College—a private liberal arts institution—has been collecting consistent data on its graduating classes for about 10 years. The college’s latest report, LifeafterK: Class of 2013 First Destinations, shows that 88 percent of the class of 2013 was fully employed, in graduate school, or engaged in a gap/service year within six months of graduation. Less than 12 percent weren’t decided or were still seeking employment. Outcomes data on the class of 2014 will be available early in 2015.
Kalamazoo’s Center for Career and Professional Development conducts an online survey of students over the course of six months, from the time they graduate until December of that year. Career counselors begin following up with students in July, calling and emailing those who’ve not responded, and tracking down information through their professors, academic departments, and classmates.
“Part of it is that the students might not initiate the reporting. So it does take our outreach to them,” Hawxhurst said. A benefit to having the career-development office gather data and do follow-ups, she explained, is that counselors can offer continued support to students who need it. “So yes, it’s about gathering data and being able to talk about outcomes. But it’s also about helping those outcomes happen,” she said.
Previously, Kalamazoo’s survey was administered only at graduation, but the timeframe was extended due to guidelines from the National Association of Colleges and Employers. By allowing the survey to stay open longer, and by closely following up with graduates, the college has increased the amount of data it gathers, Hawxhurst said. “We were recognizing the short survey period right at graduation wouldn’t help parents or students make decisions, because it was too narrow of a window,” she said.
The quest for meaningful data is a critical piece of the outcomes puzzle, according to Chan. “I don’t think schools are afraid of showing data,” he said. “The issue is it’s really difficult to obtain accurate outcome data. And there is a lot of disagreement over what data is the right data. So it makes the whole process very murky.”
Sharing Data, Improving Policy
Improving data completeness is at the core of the Multistate Longitudinal Data Exchange (MLDE), an initiative led by the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE) and originally funded with a $1.5 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. In the pilot’s first phase, four states—Hawaii, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington—shared their data on K–12 and postsecondary education and the labor market. “This effort was aimed at building a resource able to track how human capital develops and becomes mobile across a multistate region, and at giving states, for their use in policy and program improvement, access to data that go missing from individual state databases whenever individuals cross state lines,” according to a report by Brian T. Prescott, director of policy research at WICHE.
The MLDE has shown it’s feasible to fill in the gaps. Data shared among the four states made it possible to track outcomes for 7 percent more college graduates than if the information hadn’t been exchanged, says a report by Peace Bransberger, senior research analyst at WICHE. Patrick Lane, WICHE’s project manager for the MLDE, said this demonstrates the key lesson of the project: “Policymakers don’t have all of the information that they need. . . . Even in the state with the most robust data system, there is still a significant portion of the population that they will be missing. And that is because of mobility. People don’t stop at state lines, so why should our data?”
Facilitating data sharing posed a considerable challenge, surpassing even technological hurdles, Lane said. “One of the biggest [challenges] is building relationships between data providers between different entities in the states. Everyone involved in student data is cognizant of protecting student privacy,” he said.
With the help of a second round of funding—$5 million—from the Gates Foundation, the next step for the MLDE is to add at least six more states to the effort, some of which will be outside of the WICHE region. “By 2016 we expect the states will be signed on and the data will be flowing back and forth,” Lane said. The goal is to add clusters of states that are close to one another and share some level of migration.
While accountability and consumer information are important, there hasn’t been much focus on improving data in policy and practice, according to Lane. “We are not just interested in exchanging the data, but exchanging the data so it improves the information given to policymakers,” he said. “Our focus is on how to improve policy and practice in education and the workforce.”
Tracking Transfers, Working with Employers
Tracking transfer rates is another aspect of outcomes, particularly for community colleges. Santa Barbara City College (SBCC) in California has a completion rate of 62.3 percent, reflecting degree-, certificate-, and/or transfer-seeking students who started in 2007–08 and graduated or transferred within six years. Among Hispanic students at SBCC, the completion rate is 44.7 percent.
The college was co-winner of the Aspen Institute’s 2013 Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence. “The college provides a rich array of resources—and high expectations—for traditionally underserved students, including a large and growing population of Hispanics, who graduate and transfer at unusually high rates. Countless students who say they were given up on elsewhere are inspired, tutored, and pushed to succeed by Santa Barbara faculty,” according to an Aspen report about SBCC’s prize. Given every two years, the award recognizes institutions for exceptional student outcomes in four areas: student learning, certificate and degree completion, employment and earnings, and high levels of access and success for minority and low-income students.
Another element of the college’s success hinges on its collaboration with business and industry, which experts say is vital. Jack Friedlander, SBCC’s executive vice president of educational programs, said each career and technical education program has a corresponding industry advisory committee. The committees include representatives from employers that hire SBCC’s graduates and offer feedback on how they’re performing. When improvements are suggested, they’re often in the soft-skills arena, such as communication, working in groups, and/or critical thinking, Friedlander said.
A few years ago, local hospitals told the college that while graduates of its associate degree nursing program were technically well-trained, their work habits were lackluster. SBCC then arranged for a human-resources representative from the hospitals to provide guest lectures and workshops once each term for the students. They discuss what’s expected of those working at the hospitals, and how students should present themselves in applying for positions.
“We incorporated that into our program, so now the students hear directly about what’s required,” Friedlander said. “The feedback we got after follow-up is that the problems have all gone away, and they are very happy with our graduates.”
Kristina Cowan is a freelance writer based in the Chicago area.
Higher education is of course no stranger to outcomes and related data across a multitude of indices. There are in fact too many collections of data to include exhaustively here, but the list below gives a broad sense of what is being widely shared with stakeholders and the public across the full spectrum of colleges and universities.
University and College Accountability Network (U-CAN)
National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities
Voluntary System of Accountability (VSA)
American Association of State Colleges and Universities
Association of Public and Land-grant Universities