New Data on the Returns to College

Many people love to hate college rankings, but they have traditionally been one of the most easily digestible sources of information about institutions of higher education. We know very little about the outcomes of students who attend a particular college over time, so we tend to rely on simplistic measures such as graduation rates or measures of prestige. It is difficult to follow and assess the outcomes of students once they leave a given college for multiple reasons:

(1)    A substantial percentage of students transfer colleges at least once. A recent report estimated that about one-third of students who enrolled in fall 2006 were enrolled elsewhere sometime in the next five years. The growth of the National Student Clearinghouse has made following students easier, but it is difficult to figure out how to split the credit for successful outcomes across the colleges that a given student attends.

(2)    While the group of students to be assessed (everyone!) sounds straightforward, most of the push has been to focus on the outcomes of graduates. This makes for a reasonable comparison group across colleges, but colleges have different graduation rates. It makes sense to focus on all students who entered a college, but this would lower the returns to college (and doesn’t fit well with selective colleges, where everyone is assumed to graduate).

(3)    Some people choose to postpone entry into the full-time labor market, whether for good reasons (such as starting a family) or for more dubious reasons (such as getting a master’s degree and working on a PhD). Given the lack of a federal data system, other students will not be observed if they move out-of-state to work.

Even with all of the limitations of measuring student outcomes once they leave college, I am heartened to see states starting to track the labor market outcomes of students who attended public colleges and stay in-state. This requires the merging of two data systems that don’t always exist in some states and don’t talk to each other in others—state higher education data systems and unemployment insurance (UI) records. Two states, Arkansas and Tennessee, just launched websites with labor market information for graduates from their public institutions of higher education. While the sample included is far from perfect, it still provides useful data to many students, families, and policymakers.

Not surprisingly, many in academia are worried about these new measures, as they prioritize one of the purposes of higher education (employment) at the expense of other important purposes (such as critical thinking and higher-order learning). The comments on this recent Chronicle of Higher Education article are worth a read. I am concerned about policymakers solely relying on these imperfect measures of student outcomes, but stakeholders should be able to have more information about the effectiveness of colleges on as many outcomes as possible.

Author: Robert

I am an assistant professor of higher education at Seton Hall University. All opinions are my own.