What is a college diploma worth?
It’s a question proponents of higher education can’t escape these days as millions of degreed Americans struggle with unemployment and underemployment after college graduation. In response, federal agencies are taking serious measures to address the financial aspect of “worth” by holding colleges and universities responsible for a visible return on investment.
President Obama wants to improve college affordability through a universal ratings system, which would classify schools based on tuition, graduation rates, average student debt and post-graduate earnings. Reactions to the proposed ratings are mixed and heated, though arguably not as charged as is commentary surrounding the Education Department’s gainful employment regulations, which would set minimum debt-to-earnings and loan-default rate thresholds on vocational programs at for-profit institutions, community colleges, and nonprofit institutions.
Much of the pressure to demonstrate ROI falls on career services advisors whose resources students traditionally don’t call upon until graduation is right around the corner. Forward-thinking leaders like Willamette University’s Jerry Houser have pushed to involve incoming freshman in workforce preparedness as a prerequisite for class registration. His “early and often” approach is exactly what George Mason University’s Kerry Willigan advocates in her role as career services director for the university’s School of Management.
Engaging current students is one thing, though—tracking them after they leave campus is quite another. GMU, like countless schools across the country, relies on student surveys to discover when and where their graduates get hired. The response rate to these surveys is typically, and not surprisingly, low. Willigan says the incentive to reply isn’t obvious enough. She and her peers rely on a select pool of key metrics to fill in the blanks.
“Data influences almost everything we do. We use some sort of data analysis every single day,” Willigan says, adding that the need for more data on student outcomes is absolutely critical to supporting future marketing and fundraising efforts. For institutions held to proposed gainful employment regulations, reliable access to accurate data could actually mean the difference between staying open and shutting their doors for good.
Many argue that the true measure of a college education can’t—and shouldn’t—be tied to personal income. How can you possibly rate an experience that means wildly different things to different people?
It’s difficult to deny, however, the potential for numerical proof to silence most critics of higher ed—not to mention assist in successful compliance with federal ratings and regulations. Imagine if all schools could consistently and confidently deliver data to demonstrate quantitative milestones (“X amount of students in X program reported having a job at graduation in X year”). It’s one type of “worth” that can be measured and, if schools are willing to integrate new software into their existing strategies, innovative technologies make it easier to do so.
Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure is perhaps not the best example of academic achievement, but maybe the classic 80s film had it right all along: “Everything is different, but the same … it’s … computers.” In other words, the future is now.
What are your thoughts?