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A Conversation Starter: Reflections on Outcomes Reporting and the Higher Education Act

A Conversation Starter: Reflections on Outcomes Reporting and the Higher Education Act 

EACE Blog contribution by Jesse Wingate, Assistant Director in the Office of Alumni and Career Services, University of Richmond

The pending adjustments to the Higher Education Act will impact the way in which the consumer of higher education makes decisions about which college or university to attend. That is something of interest to us all, professionals in the career development and recruiting fields.

Over the past five years, there has been considerable attention given to the systemic burden of rising tuition costs, which has promoted an abysmal conversation about the return-on-investment of (ROI) of higher education. In reality, we know that an undergraduate degree continues to favor those in the workforce. But, we also know that student debt has surpassed the $1 trillion mark, that recent graduates average borrowing amounts of about $30,000, and in the past 30 years the average tuition at public four-year colleges and universities has increased by more than 250%, far exceeding the rate of inflation.

Abysmal indeed. Since the last reauthorization of the Act in 2008, legislators have been raising the bar and holding colleges more accountable for the information that they disseminate to prospective students regarding costs. As an accountability measure, colleges and universities are obligated to collect post graduate outcome information (hence the considerable efforts put forth in proposing models of standardization by NACE), which would inevitably include average earnings potential for a graduate. This is not a particularly new development.

Though the Act is law requiring a good faith effort in the collection of post graduate outcomes, college and university administrators and legislators alike still struggle to find a definitive and universal way in making these data comparable and accessible to prospective students. In reality, the biggest concern is the threat of these data being misused and misrepresented. Due to the lack of a solution, the private sector (as well as legislators) are developing their own comparison tools where majors are carelessly paired side-by-side with tuition cost and 5, 10 and 20 year net ROI dollar amounts.

In summary, it’s important for those who collect post graduate outcomes at colleges and universities to be transparent in presenting the information called upon by local and federal government. It’s even more important, however, for us to find a way to offer comparable information that can be helpful for prospective students in making decisions about colleges and universities without disparaging the value of the liberal arts. Also, we need to be able to communicate to future consumers of higher education that earnings potential cannot and should not be frivolously calculated by major. For if we think intelligibly about the long-term implications of doing so it’s likely that will lead to students selecting courses and majors that do not match their skills and abilities and in turn suffering academically.

I agree in the belief that there needs to be a clean and verifiable way of comparing institutions and degrees. The risk that is run when comparing major to major and school to school, is that a student may base their decision solely on those numbers. We like to think otherwise, but we know from our advising experiences that after looking at those numbers, students choose majors that are more lucrative rather than those that match their skills, interests and perhaps, most importantly, their abilities.

Please feel free to view the following resources for more information on how these data are being used.

PayScale (with College ROI Calculator by Major) – http://www.payscale.com/college-roi/full-list/

College Measures – http://collegemeasures.org/

Jesse Wingate

Jesse Wingate

Jesse Wingate is an Assistant Director in the Office of Alumni and Career Services at the University of Richmond in Richmond, Virginia. He currently advises undergraduate students interested in science and health related professions and has been involved with post graduate outcomes collections processes at two institutions. Before joining the staff in Richmond, Jesse held roles at Dartmouth College and the HowardCenter, a community mental health and multi-service agency in Burlington, Vermont. Jesse earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Psychology from St. Lawrence University and a Master of Education degree from the University of Vermont.   Connect with Jesse on LinkedIn or via email at jwingate@richmond.edu.

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One Comment
  1. Jesse:
    As I think you know, graduate career outcomes assessment is a topic of great interest to me!

    You mentioned the NACE effort to provide standards and protocols for collecting and disseminating graduating student initial career outcomes information. I served on the committee that worked on these for over a year and it was as you say “a considerable effort”. The resulting “guidelines and protocols did move the needle in the direction of standardization.

    In your blog you stated “It’s even more important, however, for us to find a way to offer comparable information that can be helpful for prospective students in making decisions about colleges and universities…” Another much less known effort took place around the same time as the NACE committee work. It was led by CSO Research, which most people in our industry know. Matt Berndt along with Max Wartel, an educational researcher, at CSO spent well over a year working with dozens of career office professionals from all over the country to actually create a standardized data collection process and instrument. That effort resulted in the launching of The Outcomes Survey system this month.

    The Outcomes Survey system is using standard questions, in a standardized process and timeframe with all participating colleges. The intent is for each institution to collect data to inform their own planning and decision-making as well as to provide reliable and valid career outcomes data to prospectives and other stakeholders. CSO Research will provide aggregate national data to all participating institutions without disclosing individual colleges’ results to anyone but that institution. To date 43 colleges and universities have invested in and signed on to this effort including several EACE member schools. That number is expected to pass 100 by mid-summer. I am now working with the Outcomes Survey team at CSO.

    Concerning your point about comparable data being used wisely and appropriately by the public and ‘consumers’ of higher ed, my best thought is colleges and universities need to provide valid, useful information and guide users on appropriate constructive ways to understand it and apply it. This is much like the need for career counselors to guide clients in appropriately understanding and using personal career assessment data.

    Mark Schappert
    CSO Research Inc.

    April 28, 2014

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