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.