You’ve all seen the numbers advertised. “97.5 percent of undergraduate and 99 percent of graduate students at Northwest secure employment or continue their education within six months of graduation.” Wow, those are incredible numbers; perhaps even unbelievable. It must feel great to attend a school that defies the gloomy college graduate job field we’re so accustomed to hearing about. However, students will be disheartened to find out that these numbers are completely unreliable.
The story on page A1 gives some insight into how Career Services collects data on graduates’ employment status. However, a much clearer picture will come from simply reading the official Placement Report, which is available on the Northwest website. The reality that emerges from a quick read of the report is much cloudier than the extraordinary numbers reported by the University.
Almost of all the data is self-reported, meaning that they come from surveys provided voluntarily by students in the months following graduation. They also make two telephone calls to the graduate before looking at graduates’ social media for a job status. As stated in the story on page A2, any graduates not participating are considered “no responses” and are not calculated into the report.
Before getting into the issues with drawing any serious conclusions about Northwest’s actual job placement rate from this data, the advertising of these numbers should be addressed. The University freely advertises these numbers throughout campus and on the website, but does not prominently disclose that the data is all self-reported. Prominent advertisements of these “statistics” give the impression these numbers are legitimate and can be objectively verified. They are not and cannot be.
At any time during the process, the Northwest graduates who have decided to respond to the email can report they have gotten a job. Still, those responses don’t take into account the temporary, unstable jobs that students take following graduation. Only people who marked “seeking employment” are sent any follow-up emails. Additionally, the data includes post-graduation internships in their “employed” category without referencing if the internships are paid or unpaid.
Perhaps what’s most misleading is that these numbers don’t reveal if the jobs that students get actually relate to their fields of study or career paths. They include those with part-time jobs as well as those with full-time jobs. After looking at the jobs the survey respondents secured after graduation, a complex reality emerges.
Nationally, 48 percent of graduates are in jobs that require less than a four-year degree, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. A deeper reading of the survey reveals that former Bearcats are not an exception to this trend. An English major working at Casey’s and a wildlife/ecology major working at Home Depot are just some of the countless examples.
Career Services reported that its response rate for its most recent survey, the 2012-2013 graduates, was 78.9 percent. Still, with the issues mentioned above, one should question the reliability of those who are responding. The research largely depends on the truthfulness of the respondent and that a fair sample of graduates is obtained. In an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Mark Schneider of the American Institutes for Research, argues that an adequate response rate is hard to gauge “until you find out what that selection bias is.”
Northwest is far from the only bad actor in this game. The practice of manipulating and dressing up job placement numbers is almost ubiquitous. This creates widespread problems when prospective students attempt to evaluate potential colleges.
Each college often has different ways in which they gather post-graduation data. The Chronicle reports that this makes “comparing information across universities or for any group to speak on behalf of higher education communities literally impossible,” according to Manny Contomanolis of the Rochester Institute of Technology.
To eliminate unreliable job placement numbers advertised at various universities, there needs to be national standards on the reporting of these statistics. Whether that comes through new laws or self-governing, students deserve an objective look at a school’s job placement outcomes.