Demonstrating the ROI of your degrees

Families and students demand proof of improved graduate outcomes

A family’s willingness to pay for a college education relies heavily on an institution’s ability to articulate return on investment. Discounting tuition through scholarships and other financial aid is the most common approach to increasing a college’s perceived value, as these strategies reduce the net cost to the family.

Many efforts are being implemented to improve affordability by reducing the cost of attendance. Wesleyan University in Connecticut, for example, has promoted a series of changes in 2012 designed to make the university more affordable, including shortening the path to graduation.

Nancy Meislahn, Wesleyan’s dean of admission and financial aid, says a three-year degree option is part of a multi-faceted affordability effort. “We also ask families to borrow no more than a combined total of $19,000 over the course of their Wesleyan undergraduate education—capping all packaged loans at the maximum Stafford amount and the lowest interest rate,” she says.

Making the case for value

The expectations of the marketplace also now demand impact statements that clearly show the benefit to recent graduates. So, persuasive arguments for an institution’s value proposition increasingly use data on a college’s return on investment.

Information on recent graduates’ employment and post-graduate education can be among the most compelling demonstrations of institutional value, but complete and reliable information is not always easy to come by.

If the data is available, it’s important that the information is kept up to date. These proof statements tend to come primarily from career services, alumni affairs, institutional research and academic departments. Most schools survey new graduates within the first year after graduation, but unless you get a substantial response rate and can verify that your respondent sample is representative of the class population as a whole, the results can be unreliable and even misleading.

One public university partnered with state workforce development staff to track the employment of nearly all recent graduates. This collaboration allows the institution to analyze graduate employment information by industry, state, major, race and gender.

The beta test of this approach has had excellent results, says Robert Frederick, executive director of Student Engagement & Outreach and Director of Community College Relations at the University of Northern Iowa. Universities can already capture graduate school entrance data through the graduate school clearinghouse. Removing those names and running the rest through the state workforce research agency allows for the capture of all graduates who are paying unemployment insurance.

“The overall ‘knowledge rate’—the proportion of the population for whom we have information—can exceed 95 percent,” Frederick says. “Both the self-selecting survey bias and traditionally low salary data reporting are mitigated.”

Data on students’ majors can be tied to North American Industry Classification System codes to understand patterns of hiring by industry. “Finally, there is a broad range of general demographic knowledge that can be accessed, not the least of which is knowing how many graduates from a particular data set are employed in each of the 50 states,” he says. “This approach has incredible potential for supporting a university’s value-proposition metanarrative.”

Other ways to get data

For institutions that don’t have access to a data source this comprehensive, it’s essential to do everything possible to boost graduate survey response rates. Non-respondents can be traced via home telephone numbers and surveys of parents. Colleges that keep campus email addresses live after graduation have a natural means to connect with difficult-to-track graduates. They can also be tracked on LinkedIn and other social media.

Bentley University in Massachusetts uses LinkedIn to collect and display career information on more than 40,000 graduates in an interactive database. The Bentley site lets a user sort the 1900-2015 alumni database by combinations of employer, job category and location. Profiles of alumni working for a particular company give recent graduates ready access to networking opportunities.

At one time, accreditation agencies were the main proponents of publishing student outcomes data, though their primary focus has been on learning outcomes and the relationship to learning goals. In recent years, there has been heightened interest in collecting a broader set of outcomes information.

In May, the National Association of Colleges and Employers conducted its first comprehensive survey of recent bachelor’s and associate degree recipients. The report, which can be found on the organization’s website, includes data collected by 190 career centers for nearly 274,000 members of the Class of 2014. Results are broken out by academic discipline, institutional size and region of the country. The data include employment, continuing education rates and mean starting salaries for employed graduates.

The demand for post-graduate information is also coming increasingly from prospective students and their parents. In response to this need, St. Olaf College in Minnesota designed a webpage devoted to graduate outcomes. There are sections describing student learning outcomes, as well as graduate and professional school outcomes and employment outcomes for the last several graduating classes.

The University of Richmond Career Services website has a concise summary of post-graduation data, showing six-month and one-year-out employment rates, a list of primary fields of employment, average salary ranges, and lists of selected employers and graduate schools for the last five graduating classes.

Putting it all together

Just as online aggregators allow families to analyze the cost of higher education, several websites now compare colleges on graduation and retention rates, proportion of degrees granted in various fields, average loan amount, and the “net return on investment.” This last statistic is defined by one website as the difference between the 20-year median pay for a graduate with a bachelor’s degree from a particular college and the 24-year median pay for a high school graduate—minus the particular college’s four-year total cost of attendance.

Other data on projected earnings can be found at, which recently created a site for Texas high school students to compare outcomes for all in-state public two- and four-year schools, including average first year and average 10th year earnings.

Departmental data

For years, academic departments’ pages on college websites were designed primarily to serve faculty and majors in the department. But students with an interest in a particular discipline are increasingly looking to departmental webpages for outcomes information.

This means there should be prominent links to academic program websites on the admissions webpage. Departmental pages should feature a variety of student outcomes information for recent graduates of each degree program. Examples include job placement and degree completion rates, internship availability, licensure exam outcomes, salary range data, employer information, job titles, and graduate school enrollment information. Alumni profiles in each major program can then help to bring the statistics to life. The biology department page at Luther College is a good example.

Cross-campus collaboration among a number of offices is critical to successfully gathering a rich, comprehensive collection of data and anecdotes. As noted earlier, this is not a one-time project. Create an expectation among administrative and academic departments that gathering this information will be an annual exercise. Then put data-collection processes in place to ensure that you can collect the data in a consistent and timely manner.

Finally, make sure the marketing staff are on board to help you make the most informative and persuasive presentation you can create. Articulating your value proposition in the most compelling way you can is an institutional investment that will pay long-term dividends.

Bill Berg is an enrollment management consultant at Scannell & Kurz, a RuffaloCODY company.

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