Colleges Asked To Prove Post-Grad Success

Colleges Asked to Prove Post-Grad Career Success
Want a good job? Get a college degree, right? The most recent data, this by Pew Research, suggests that it still makes strong financial sense, even with what can be a crushing burden of financial aid. For the Millennial generation, "virtually every measure of economic well-being and career attainment" say that "young college graduates are outperforming their peers with less education." In fact, the gap between those who have college degrees and those who don't has never been greater.

That's great as a general principle, but young people, and their families, investing in college want to know specifically how this connection works. And it's there that schools are stumbling, according to the Wall Street Journal, because many have no way to show why their courses of study should be particularly helpful or not. The article briefly told the story of Bonnie Mann Falk, a Long Island, NY mother whose 17-year-old daughter planned to study retail management and wanted to know her chances of getting a job.

Falk, an accountant, grew tired of hearing admissions officers say they didn't have detailed information on hand. "While true, it doesn't mean you can't track that. It sounded like a canned response to me," she said. Mollie, who had checked out several schools, has been accepted to Syracuse University, where the business and communications schools offered ample job data, including starting salaries broken down by major, her mother said.

Long gone are the days when a university education was supposed to be as important for general intellectual development and character as it was for professional development. The annual cost of a four year college, as reported by the College Board, is $18,391 at an in-state public school, $31,701 at an out-of-state public school, and $40,917 at a private school. In 2012, 71 percent of graduating college seniors had student loan debt, according to the Project on Student Debt from the Institute for College Access & Success. The average amount was $29,400.

It's a big burden, and young people want to know that their prospects will justify the financial stress. There's good reason. Pew compares incomes of those with four-year degrees, two-year degrees, and no degrees by median figures, or the middle value of a range. So, saying that the median annual income of full-time workers from age 25 to 32 is $45,500 means that as many people make less than the figure as make more. After spending so much for a degree and facing years of loan payments, no one wants to land on the wrong side of the fence.

The problem, according to the Journal, is that figures are often unavailable or misleading. The Higher Education Opportunity Act forbids the federal government from setting up a database of student records because of issues like privacy. However, that means there is no central way to begin to correlate schools, majors, and incomes. There are some state efforts, but they cannot command the scope necessary for accurate information. Some schools themselves offer graduation employment statistics, but rely on data volunteered by alumni. Low response rates and poor survey design can make the numbers statistically meaningless.

The Department of Education has considered including employment as a factor in a new college rating system. There have also been efforts in Congress to bring measures of educational value into federal student aid determination. But there is nothing in the short term to enlighten families.

Those headed to college can at least bring some critical analysis to the problem. Ask colleges for whatever studies they have of placement and income rates and the methodology of how they were conducted. If the school can't provide such information as how potential respondents were chosen or what percent of those invited to take the survey actually did, chances are you're not getting sound information.

Check the Web and social media (particularly LinkedIn) for alumni of the school who work in the area that interests you. Try approaching them directly and asking about the strengths and weaknesses of the programs. It's no promise of how things might work out for you, but at least it could let you approach things with your eyes open.
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