Congratulations! Your high school student has been admitted to a variety of colleges. After looking at finances, social life, and academics, you’ve got one more question: what happens after graduation?
Parents often ask me which schools produce the best outcome. The answer is difficult because the idea of “the best outcome” is so varied. Every student and family should start by developing their own definition of a positive outcome: what do you hope to gain out of your college education?
For some, it’s a good job and a successful launch to a career. For others, it’s an education that prepares the student for a variety of careers through the development of research, communications, and analytical skills. Others want an education that produces a young adult who understands the mechanics of the society in which they live, creating a productive, informed, and involved citizen.
Some goals are easier to evaluate, like job placement after college. Others are much more subjective. Let’s look at some of the concrete information that you might consider.
A school’s graduation rate can give you a general idea of how well the school supports students from freshman year through graduation. Most graduation rates are measured 6 years from the start of a student’s education, but many schools also post their 4-year graduation rates. Make sure you know the differences in those numbers and what they might represent. Keep in mind that a lower graduation rate may not always indicate that the college is not doing a good job with their students. At Johnson State College in 2013, only 33.2% graduated with their bachelor’s degree in 6 years or their associate’s degree in 3 years. Although those numbers are below the national average, note the mission of the College: they are committed to serving all Vermont students and providing them the opportunity for a college education. This means they take risks, giving all candidates the opportunity to succeed. Their graduation rate may not be as concerning as other schools with similar rates and a less inclusive mission.
It’s also important to ask how many freshmen return for their sophomore year. At Swarthmore College, the retention rate is nearly 99% and the four year graduation rate is as high as 91%, both great numbers. But consider that the students they admit are among the most motivated students in the country. Just because your child’s peers return for their second year doesn’t guarantee your child will; look a little more deeply at the institutional culture and find the match that will ensure your child shows up for year two.
As you conduct your research, you should also consider a college’s default rates. This shows the percentage of students that take out loans for their college education and are unable to pay them back. Sometimes this is a function of the dropout rate, an inability to find work after college, or insufficient compensation to repay the amount of debt incurred. It’s hard to know the cause for sure, but a school’s default rate can alert you to issues their students might face.
Almost everyone looks at college as a launch pad for a successful career, but be sure you know what the school’s employment outcomes data is telling you. Most employment data is derived from a survey of recent graduates and surveys create all sorts of problems with responses rates and the phrasing of particular questions. For example, some schools ask students if they have a job or expect to have a job within a certain timeframe. The resulting data is a bit soft. Whenever you gather this information, look beyond mere percentages; you want to know exactly what the data is measuring. You may also consider the accreditation of the program in which you are interested. If you are interested in studying Environmental Engineering, for example, it may be worth noting that the University of Maryland at College Park’s program is accredited for a Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering, whereas the department at Penn State has a more specific accreditation in Environmental Systems Engineering. This distinction may or may not be important to future career aspirations.
Of course, there are no measures of personal improvement or productive citizenship, but you can usually consider other campus attributes and make a guess about these kinds of outcomes. The goal here is to be as informed as you can be to help your student find the right fit for him.