Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Real Outcomes

One of the best assessments of college is the job and the paycheck. The chart above tells the tale (taken from here). Another table from the Wall Street Journal gives data by major, which is very interesting (hint: liberal arts comes out looking good)--see this post for details and comments. I argue there that the government is in the best position to do detailed studies by institution if they really are interested in learning outcomes. I had an opinion piece published about that idea in University Business a while back. Maybe the new administration would be more receptive to such an idea.

Another measure of success of higher education is the percentage of the population with degrees.
These are all solid, usable statistics with no statistical goo added. Notice that there aren't any averages in sight (unless you consider a percent to be an average over a binary variable).

This contrasts with the generally opaque assessments of learning outcomes. Part of the allure of standardized testing is that at least the outcome seems to be clear: it arrives in the form of a crisp number like the ones above. These can be turned into pretty graphs. The problem there is whether or not they actually mean anything. I've argued that they can, if the complexity of what's being tested is appropriately low. Testing calculus (low complexity) may work, but testing critical thinking (high complexity) probably won't.


  1. Alona Smolova8:12 AM

    I agree that employment rates and earnings can be used as a good proxy for assessing institutional effectiveness in preparing graduates for the "real world." However, we need to be mindful of the changing economic context in which graduates find themselves when they leave college. The results of the National Study of Recent College Graduates reveal some rather disturbing trends in employment outcomes. For example, even prior to the economic recession, between 1999 and 2003, employment rates among recent Math and Computer Science graduates dropped from 89.4% to 84.3%, among Engineering majors from 92.2% to 87.4%, and among Physical and Related Sciences majors from 84.9% to 82.4%. These trends appear even more dramatic for recent college graduates who had started at 2-year institutions.

  2. Very interesting...thanks. Source is here for anyone who wants to look at the tables.

    What do you think this means in terms of educational success? Is the value of the product declining, or just the demand?