Colleges’ Job-Placement Figures Offer A Lesson In Fuzzy Math

Career College Central summary:

  • Tracking graduate outcomes is challenging for schools — and something they’re increasingly expected to do as families want to know their investment in higher education will have a real payoff. But good intentions are often marred by bad data, and surveys of new graduates—the most common way schools check in—rarely yield valuable information.
  • Response rates for those alumni surveys often don’t top 50%, according to member data from the National Association of Colleges and Employers, and those who do respond may be doing so only because they have something good to report. NACE recently created a new expectation for gathering verifiable data on 65% of a graduation class, and set standard definitions for terms like “employed.”
  • A link on the “Information for Parents” section of Southern Methodist University’s website boasts that more than 75% of 2012 graduates who responded to a survey reported “success” (full-time employment or admission to graduate school) within three months of graduation. Of the unspecified number of grads who provided salary information, 75% earned between $50,000 and $80,000. Those numbers are based on a survey response rate of about 60% from a class of roughly 1,700 graduates. More business-school students are represented than are liberal-arts students, according to Darin Ford, who runs the university’s career center.
  • Still, a similar set of bullet points appears on the undergraduate admission sites for scores of colleges. Clark University in Worcester, Mass., until recently noted on its “Return on Education” website that of those responding to a survey, 88% of the class of 2011 had a job or were in graduate school within six months of graduation. The school removed that line in mid-January, after The Wall Street Journal inquired about the figure’s origin. A school spokeswoman initially said the number was based on an alumni survey of people who graduated less than five years ago, but later said the figure came from a senior-class survey with a 74.6% response rate. She declined to provide a copy of the report.

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