Workforce Development

Choosing a college for the job that comes after

May 11, 2012  • Joshua Wyner

This blog post was originally published as a guest submission in the Washington Post on May 11 2012. To see the original article, please click here.

Graduation exercises at Anacostia High School, 2010. (Photo by Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post) Beginning this month, high school students across the country will be making choices about the colleges they will attend for the next two or four years. Whether they are choosing from among elite private colleges and flagship public universities, or from a list of open-access state four-year and community colleges, how will they and their families make those decisions?

Until now, it has been almost impossible for students to include in their deliberations what graduating from specific colleges and their programs is likely to yield in terms of jobs and salaries after graduation. But that is starting to change.

Information will begin to become available this year that will enable students to say: “If I go to College X and earn a nursing/economics/marketing degree, I’m more likely to get a good-paying job post-graduation than if I receive the same degree from College Y.”

This is a huge development, and will increasingly enable people to get answers about post-college employment. Especially as college continues to get more expensive, students rightfully want to make sure that that their investment has value. They’re asking: What are the chances I’m going to get a job earning a decent wage? And if I’m choosing between two or three schools as a prospective student, which will give me the biggest bang for my (and my family’s) buck?

Here is the back story: After years of trying, the nation now has data sets about college students who graduate from different programs at different colleges.

The primary source of new information is a new Labor Department-driven, data-sharing partnership among states, called the Wage Records Interchange System. The Labor Department has placed state-level employment and earnings data in a single place and is now getting states to agree to share the data. So, with the push of a button, states can look into each other’s databases.

Twenty-two states have signed on so far, with more coming on board every month. With access to this information, college administrators in Maryland will be able to see where their students have gone to work and how much they are earning – unless, of course, they inquire about their Virginia-bound graduates or others who have moved to states that have yet to join the agreement. Yes, that means that Virginia – unless it signs on – cannot get good information about most students who graduate and then go to work in Maryland, or D.C., or North Carolina, or any other state.

A second important source of information about college graduates’ jobs and earnings will be released this year by the Department of Education. So called “Gainful Employment Reports” will reveal employment and earnings levels for students who graduate from the most popular technical certificate programs at colleges all across the country. If these reports show wide disparities among graduates from different colleges, can it be long before the same data are demanded for all bachelors’ degree programs?

The still-developing movement to increase higher education accountability and improvement has been focused for the last decade or so on improving graduation rates – undoubtedly a critically important measure of excellence. The problem is that, as important as it is for students to finish their degrees, graduation rates in and of themselves don’t offer a very good measure of quality. And if you’re a student entering college, you certainly aren’t solely interested in a diploma that hangs on your wall. You’re far more interested in getting a good job when you graduate, one that enables you to have a good salary that puts you on a path to earning a decent living. This is especially important for the growing number of minority and low-income students today on America’s campuses, largely at community colleges and open-access four-year colleges.

We’ve entered a new era in higher education. We’re starting to look beyond enrollment and student access, beyond graduation rates to labor market outcomes. So the question before us is this: In addition to producing more degrees, how do we make sure colleges provide students with degrees that have greater value?

It is estimated that up to a million jobs in the country right now are going begging — literally, up to a million jobs that are empty because we don’t have workers who are skilled for those jobs. And a lot of colleges look at that and say: “Well, that’s an opportunity, but where are we going to find that money to expand programs to provide those skills?”

Here’s a suggestion: take money from programs and courses completely disconnected form good employment outcomes, and beef up the ones that lead to solid jobs. This does not require dismantling the philosophy or visual art department or other disciplines that instill the kind of critical and creative thinking employers want as much or more than ever. But it does mean reconsidering whether students can get more of what they need for good jobs by cutting certain programs whose graduates are not getting jobs, or doing away with a esoteric courses that are not required for graduation and have not been shown to increase the kind of critical thinking or technical skills needed for employment.

The importance of this newly available data cannot be overstated. States can now enable colleges to access labor market information to confront a critical reality with hard numbers. Colleges will have new, valuable information about which of their offerings lead to the best jobs, and how they stack up against the same programs at other colleges. What better information could they have to signal what programs need improvement? Colleges will also be able to use the labor market data to help undecided students choose programs earlier, which is emerging as a research-based strategy to increase student graduation rates.

That is a quantum leap from where we have been in the past and, in essence, will begin to put labor market outcomes alongside graduation rates as a key metric of value and excellence in the college sector. It’s time for all the states to make sure this happens by entering the data-sharing agreement. It’s the right thing to do for colleges striving to get better. But mostly, it’s the right thing for students, their families, and the students’ future employers.