The post-college outcomes of baccalaureate graduates have gained in emphasis as an accountability theme in higher education. This theme stems, in part, from critique by some who allege the value of a post-secondary credential continues to weaken as too many college-educated job seekers compete for too few jobs in today’s market (though a thoughtful response exists for this critique).
Other critics add complexity to the post-college accountability theme by claiming that gaps exist between available jobs and the supply of suitably credentialed graduates to fill them. For instance, a recent analysis in Florida examined gaps between baccalaureate-level occupational demand and the corresponding supply of appropriately credentialed degree recipients across the state’s public and private sector institutions. The analysis revealed that, from 2012 to 2020, a number of baccalaureate-level jobs are expected to have more than 100 annual openings for each new baccalaureate graduate who will hold a degree in a related academic discipline. And guess what? They’re not only in STEM.
So – how can colleges and universities navigate the complexity of what seems to be blanket critique that institutions are oversupplying graduates in the wrong fields and undersupplying them in the right ones? Given this complexity, where might we be able to distinguish fact from fiction in a manner that yields evidence to affirm institutional attainment of the economic development mission while effectively pointing to possible next steps for strategic growth? And further, how can we demonstrate the truer nature of our educational task, which is to educate the whole person for life – not just employment? A critical response is for institutions to survey graduates about their post-collegiate outcomes – to include non-employment factors. Suggestions I provide in this post may help leaders fill in gaps that exist in the type of information their institutions might already be collecting.
Before I turn to the important role of student affairs leaders in designing evidence-based responses to the post-college accountability theme, I want to reference some recent developments across systems and at the national level that illustrate the timeliness and potential urgency for tracking post-college outcomes.
System-level Initiatives and the Consonant Nationwide Push
Washington and Florida provide two highly visible examples of recent system-wide studies to track the post-college employment and continuing education outcomes of graduates – an important inclusion given that a number of graduates pursue further education, which may delay some from entering the workforce.
What did these studies indicate? Broadly, these studies found that recent graduates do find employment upon graduation. In addition, a substantial number of graduates also pursued further education upon completion of their degrees. It is important to note, too, that many of these degree seekers pursued education while working. The studies also reported employment and average wage among completers across the various academic disciplines, and an even richer narrative on the post-college outcomes of graduates will be made available as states are either building upon their current tracking efforts or are implementing newly-developed studies.
Consonant to state-level developments in this policy space, Congressional leaders in both major parties have suggested that federal agencies would benefit from having unit record-level data to determine what happens to students across the United States once they attain a postsecondary credential. In fact, a substantial allocation of federal revenue was recommended in the current bi-partisan appropriations bill, which can be found on page 921 of the document under Institute for Education Sciences. If authorized, these funds intend to incentivize public and private organizations to develop capacity to track post-college outcomes. In addition, the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU), and the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) announced their joint Post-Collegiate Outcomes Initiative, kicked off by a summit in January that will feature their newly devised toolkit for tracking these data at the campus level.
These recent initiatives and new resources point to the presence of heavy interest and ever-growing capacity, particularly in an exponentially data-rich world, to generate knowledge about where our students land after graduation. But how much will only knowing about whether they have a job, are pursuing further study, or how much income they’ve collected really tell us about the meaning that our graduates are making out of their lives – within and outside of the workplace – after they leave our institutions? And what current initiatives have indicated is that, although we know whether or not graduates are working or studying, we are missing important facets of graduates’ choices and intentional behaviors that do not coincide with our assumptions of what graduates do upon completion. Without this knowledge, we are left to the perspectives of our critics and stakeholders about the value of the postsecondary credential. To help inform these perspectives and fill in these knowledge gaps, we need to follow up with our graduates.
A Campus Resource
Although some campuses already survey their recent graduates, leaders often look for established resources when designing or refining their follow-up survey instruments. In response, the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) has recently established standards and protocols for the collection and dissemination of initial outcomes information for recent baccalaureate degree recipients. Among the features of the NACE Standards are:
In alignment with the NACE Standards, the Higher Education Data Sharing Consortium (HEDS) has initiated its First Destination Survey to which institutions can subscribe at a cost and, in turn, have access to comparable information on the post-graduate employment and continuing education outcomes of graduates. Through HEDS, institutions may also choose to ask up to 20 supplemental, campus-specific questions to elevate decision utility.
And here is where campuses can build upon knowledge to demonstrate value of the post-secondary credential. In response to criticism that institutions produce degrees that are of little value, the following suggestions may help inform dialogue about how postsecondary credentials are transferrable across fields and that graduates’ choices are a driving factor in post-college outcomes. When surveying graduates about employment, you may also want to include the following in the instrument:
This information can help campus leaders understand how many graduates may choose not to seek employment or pursue a part-time occupation upon graduation (you may be surprised at how many you find). Further, knowing the variety of occupational fields to which employers find a particular degree attractive may help you leverage an evidence-based response to stakeholder critique about the value of some degrees and disciplines compared to others. Important, too, is that these questions help inform the choices that our graduates have made with respect to their post-college employment or continuing education decisions, and may help counter critical assumptions about the reasons why graduates are unemployed, underemployed, or employed outside of their academic disciplines. But even with this information, we still need to know more about our graduates.
The Vital Role of Student Affairs Leaders
Whether designing or refining your institution’s survey, or partnering with an external organization to conduct your post-college assessment, it is critical to incorporate questions that supplement those on employment or continuing education with those that touch on other important learning and developmental outcomes. To this end, student affairs professionals are centrally poised to provide leadership and guidance.
Student affairs leaders can establish partnerships across the institution, leverage effective practices, and elevate conversations where needed to generate helpful knowledge about graduates that will not only demonstrate workforce alignment, but also inform how higher education has impacted other facets of their livelihoods after graduation. In turn, this information may also leverage a timely and diplomatic response to the ‘governance by anecdote’ challenge facing educational leaders – particularly with respect to post-college accountability.
As practitioners, we thoughtfully and intentionally design a set of learning outcomes that are critical to attaining the educational mission of the institution – focusing on factors that coincide with discipline content that are also vital to success in employment and the bigger picture. The next step, then, should be to see what our learners do with these intended outcomes. Questions that student affairs professionals might be interested in having answered include:
Knowing these and other similar outcomes will help us capture the broader educational purpose of colleges and universities – to educate the whole person for a life of intellectual curiosity, mental well-being, and physical health. And when we look to the impact of our programs, services, and resources to achieve our curricular and co-curricular objectives, it is useful to know how our intended learning interventions are impacting students after graduation. As student affairs leaders, we should push the conversation to go beyond, but still include, employment and continuing education outcomes. We should seek to know more – and inform our stakeholders - about the holistic value we provide to our students.
Some Practical Tips
As I close, I want to offer some other practical tips that will help reach participants effectively and maximize survey response rates. Since online surveys are a common approach to collect information, don’t forget to use a format that is Smartphone friendly. This is especially important because of how closely linked many individuals are to their phones – using these devices for real-time social media updates or email notifications. As such, it is likely that the first contact you have with a potential respondent is through this device. If respondents attempt to complete the survey via Smartphone, but have trouble with survey functionality, you may lose them. Also, keep the survey short and sweet – limit the survey to 10 minutes of expected completion time – and, if necessary, alternate the types of supplemental questions you ask each year (i.e. civic engagement one year and personal well-being the next) to avoid an overly cumbersome survey while also gathering needed information. Finally, consider personalizing the survey. Examples include a letter of invitation by someone familiar to the respondents (i.e. a popular faculty member or administrator) and/or a survey template designed with the school’s logo and colors. These little details may make a big difference in the likelihood that respondents complete the survey.
As student affairs leaders, we can partner with our institutional colleagues to provide evidence-based responses to the persistent and commanding post-college accountability theme. Asking graduates about how their prior postsecondary experiences relate to their current livelihoods will help us better understand the impact we’re making on our students within the workplace and beyond – and will help us sustain an environment that reflects our holistic educational mission.