Measuring the Economic Success of College Graduates: Lessons From the Field

Mark S. Schneider

Calculating how much recent graduates earn after completing their degree is one way for policymakers to assess the return on state and federal investments in higher education. It’s also an important consideration for students and families, who want at least some assurance that the burden of student loan debt taken on today will be offset by higher earnings in the future. Although the Obama Administration has focused on improving accountability and transparency concerning the cost of higher education, states are leading the way on collecting earnings data about their college and university graduates.

The American Institutes for Research, through CollegeMeasures™, has partnered with seven states to give policymakers and consumers access to data documenting the labor market success of their graduates. This report describes several lessons about how to turn complex data about education and wages into useful information that can improve the lives of students and families:

  • School-level reporting isn’t enough.
  • Consider combining several cohorts of graduates, not just the most recent year’s.
  • Be transparent about who is and isn’t included in recent graduates’ wage reports.
  • When possible, report both short-term and long-term wage outcomes.
  • In addition to reporting on wages, report on students’ loan debt at completion.
  • Capture data on graduates employed out of state.
  • Report information about rates of in-state employment.
  • Use medians, not averages, when reporting wages and student debt.
  • Discuss regional variations in wages.
  • Remind readers that wage reports alone can’t measure added value.

For more detail on each of these key points, see the full report.