National Benchmarks for Assessing Higher Education Value

With the published comprehensive cost of college continuing to rise despite declining family income (see slides courtesy of Jon Boeckenstedt), consumers in the higher education marketplace have become more prudent about investigating a college’s return on investment. Yet what are recent college graduates finding upon graduation? “A yawning gulf between new grad job expectations and reality.” That’s Fortune magazine’s take-away from the results of the Accenture 2014 College Graduate Employment Survey, which compares the job expectations of the Class of 2014 with the actual job outcomes of the Classes of 2013 and 2012.

Among the gaps:

  • 84% of 2014 graduates expect to land a job in their chosen field, but only 67% of graduates from the previous two years are working in their industry of choice.
  • Only 18% of 2014 graduates expect to earn $25,000 or less, yet more than 41% of 2013 and 2012 graduates are earning salaries in that range.

Just as problematic are the trend lines for the annual survey:

  • Only 11% of students graduating in 2014 had already secured a job at the time of the March survey, compared to 16% of the 2013 graduating class. (Likewise, the 2014 AfterCollege Career Insights Survey found 83% of graduating seniors, a jump from 80% last year, did not have a job lined up as of April 2014, despite 72.7% of them reporting that they were actively looking for one.)
  • Just 46% of 2013 and 2012 graduates are employed full time (down from the 68% of the 2012 and 2011 graduates surveyed last year), with another 27% employed part time. But even among these working graduates, a whopping 46% say they are underemployed and working in jobs that do not require their college degrees, an increase from 41% in last year’s survey.

These findings come on the heels of the inaugural report of the Gallup-Purdue Index, which gauges well-being and workplace engagement among college graduates. It asks those who are employed full time for an employer (and not self-employed) a set of questions to determine their workplace engagement in terms of whether they are “intellectually and emotionally connected with their organizations and work teams because they are able to do what they’re best at, they like what they do at work, and they have someone who cares about their development at work.” The survey found only 39% of these college graduates are engaged in the workplace, 49% are not engaged, and 12% are actively disengaged.

Lawlor Recommends

This time of year in the college selection process, the subject of value permeates the marketplace. But as many colleges and universities have already discovered this month, what is claimed or perceived to be of value is not necessarily persuasive and compelling enough as students and families compute the value proposition on their own personal “net value calculators.”

As we noted in our March issue of Lawlor Focus, “Show Me the Value,” providing students and families with authentic proof and ample evidence of post-graduate success and satisfaction is an absolute necessity in today’s higher education marketplace. So if your college or university has job outcome statistics for recent graduates that outperform the national benchmarks noted here, then cite them. The success of GOLD (Graduates Of the Last Decade) alumni is meaningful and relevant to assessing the worth of a student’s college investment. If your college isn’t sharing this type of information, then the calculation of investment value will fall short.

Too often, higher education institutions rely upon anecdotal evidence alone to highlight the success of their graduates to prospective students and their families. Since determining the best college to attend is often an intuitive hunch based on feelings of fit, colleges do indeed find success in telling stories and anecdotes that have an emotional appeal.

But an institution’s marketing messages need to speak to both the right brain and left brain—because even though people may lead with emotion and warm stories resonate with them, they then seek logic to justify their emotional decision via cold, hard facts. To ward off “summer melt,” now is definitely an important time to assess the value of your messaging and determine if your institution really is providing ample evidence that it is a worthwhile higher education investment.


In the News

In “What Do Students Actually Learn in College?” Marketplace spotlighted Sarah Lawrence College, which came up with its own learning assessment tool to track students’ growth over time and thereby prove the college’s value. The Chronicle of Higher Education followed up with an interview with the college’s president about how Sarah Lawrence is trying to measure what they think they provide.


Did You Know?

9.1% of all students attended more than one institution during the 2012-13 academic year, with women and students age 20 and under doing so at a higher rate.