It’s not the data, it’s what you do with it that counts

As an avid fan of The West Wing, I can often relate quotes from the show to real situations. Reading Paul Fain’s “Elusive Data on Education and Workforce” on Inside Higher Ed reminds me of the episode “Two Cathedrals.” In it, Mrs. Landingham says to the President, “You don’t know how to use the intercom.” The President responds, “It’s not that I don’t know how to use it. It’s just that I haven’t learned yet.”

Fain’s summary of a U.S. Government Accountability Office report concludes that data systems fall far short of linking education and workforce after eight years of work and $640 million in spending. Federal grant programs have attempted to establish longitudinal data systems linking K-12, higher education, and employment. It turns out that the shortcomings are not technical—we have adequate database systems. Instead, we need to address public policy around student unit records.

Controversy is rooted in tracking individual students through the education system to employment. Using Social Security numbers as a unique identifier would be more reliable than matching on names and dates of birth, for example. However, the approach raises student privacy concerns and wide opposition by higher education lobbying organizations.

As an academic leader and practitioner, I can attest to the need for higher quality data to inform decisions in the education field. But while student unit records would provide better data, a new system could be subject to misuse and abuse in determining the value of higher education institutions. The conversation should be broadened to a variety of other concerns, particularly for academic leaders engaged in continuous quality improvement.

At the Northeast Ohio Council on Higher Education, our highly acclaimed internship program, NEOintern, connects businesses and college students. One of the best indicators of success is internship and co-op placements. But this statistic remains elusive (except for internships for college credit). And this is challenging for other organizations, including colleges and universities, with internship programs. How can we improve the quality of services we provide if we are unable to track such a basic metric? How do we determine the quality of internships if we don’t know about placements? How do we track the long-term impact of internships on career advancement?

NOCHE protects student privacy, and we would take every measure to continue that practice in a student unit record system. More importantly, we would gain access to data that we could use to improve our programs, which ultimately would lead to more college students landing better jobs.

This is only one example that illustrates the potential benefit of unit records. Even absent a unit record system, I am working with my colleagues at NOCHE and our colleges and universities in Northeast Ohio to improve our internship placement tracking. It’s not that it can’t be done. It just that we haven’t figured it out yet. Let me know how this is true for you.

Delivering what customers want most: jobs after college

The higher education industry has increased its focus on student learning outcomes, especially graduation rates, since the Spellings Commission on the Future of Higher Education released its final report in 2006. However, according to a recent Gallop survey, the real outcome that Americans seek more than any other is not a diploma; it is a job. Graduates who are able to get a “good job” ranked higher than the percentage of students who graduate from the college or the price of the college in a survey conducted on behalf of the Lumina Foundation in May 2013.

According to the survey, 41% of all respondents (a random selection of adults age 18 and older in all 50 states) say that job placement of graduates is the most important factor in choosing a college, followed by 37% for the price of the college and 16% for the percentage of students who graduate from the college.

The survey found that a majority of Americans say that a year of tuition should be $20,000 at most. Only 23% of the respondents strongly agreed or agreed that higher tuition means higher quality.

These findings are critically important for higher education marketing and communications professionals. From an institutional marketing perspective, the findings prompt us to ask about the programs of study we offer and their pathways to careers. Do the programs we offer provide learning outcomes relevant to local or statewide labor market demands? This is not a trivial question with a simple answer, especially for liberal arts colleges. What is the role of career services when a good job is the most desirable outcome of higher education? Does the college or university have a robust internship program that places students into workplaces during their courses of study? In my experience, most career services offices are under-resourced and under-staffed to compete in this environment.

Implications for price are as prevalent as programs. If a higher cost does not equate to a perception of higher quality and most Americans value higher education at no more than $20,000 per year, then many colleges and universities are in a position of competitive disadvantage. If quality is not a differentiator at a higher price point, then what is? What are the implications for tuition discounting?

From a communications perspective, the survey underscores the importance of communicating to pre-college students and families about the career pathways that will be available for students after graduation. Promoting the institution’s internship program or showing accomplishments of recent graduates are excellent ways to convey this message. For example, in my experience with adult student recruitment, testimonials are among the best ways to communicate to prospective students.

Higher education institutions are complex organizations that have many inputs and outputs. Every higher education leader should be attuning to the American public’s want for jobs after attending college. Marketing and communications professionals are in ideal positions to develop strategy to adapt to this environment.