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Measuring True Post-College Employment Outcomes Is a Fool's Errand

group of business people with data chart superimposed

A college in Texas reports on its website that between 62 and 65 percent of its vocational nursing program graduates got jobs as licensed practical and licensed vocational nurses. Yet, according to the school's accreditation agency, the job placement rate for those same graduates was just 33 percent. Which one's right? It's possible that neither is, because there's no consistency in how employment data is collected or reported.

That's the topic of a report recently produced by the Institute for College Access & Success. This non-profit works to make higher education "more available and affordable" for everybody through "research, analysis and advocacy."

According to "Of Metrics and Markets: Measuring Post-College Employment Success," the problem starts with a lack of coordination among the "three entities tasked with oversight" of higher ed — the accrediting agencies, state governments and federal government — each pursuing their own approach to calculating and reporting employment metrics. The result is a "patchwork" of data that makes comparing programs and colleges "nearly impossible."

On top of that, when the metrics are available, people who need them may have trouble finding them. Recently, the U.S. Department of Education removed data from its College Scorecard related to employment outcomes for institutions, and the federal agency has also done away with requirements that colleges even share job placement rates with their prospective students.

The Institute called for creation of job rates that are "consistent, accurate and transparent enough to inform decision-making." It also offered an alternative approach for creating these:

First, the report suggested that the feds take the lead in coming up with a uniform definition for job placement rate to be used by all parties, predicated on measuring the percentage of graduates who are employed in the occupations for which they were trained; also, the report noted, states should do the job of verifying the data (to prevent misleading and falsified reporting).

Second, the report encouraged the Department of Education to "restore" the threshold earnings rate metric and improve the calculation by adding threshold earnings rates at the program level along with the school level. Right now, the only salary data is the median earning of all former students in an institution who received federal financial aid at the 10-year mark after entering the school.

Third, the Institute would like to see Congress authorize the creation of a federal student-level data network that would improve the accuracy of the calculations done for federal employment metrics.

"Higher education proves a powerful lever of upward mobility for many Americans, but leaves too many worse off than when they started, with substantial debt and little or no increased earnings power to pay it off," said Institute President James Kvaal, in a statement. "Simply put, students are entitled to this foundational information as they make key decisions about where to invest time and money."

The report is openly available on the Institute for College Access & Success website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

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