Income as a proxy for college excellence?

Dear Alumni:

Some of you may have seen an on-line college ranking that uses income after graduation as a proxy for college excellence. Given COA’s emphasis on values and service over the profit motive, it’s probably not much of a surprise to learn we didn’t fare too well on this list. There has been some discussion about this list on social media and I thought you’d like to hear my reactions.

First, it’s heartening to see our alumni question the validity of this ranking and the metrics being used. We aim to educate COA students to critically analyze the source and accuracy of any information – and there certainly exists a world in social media where “top 10” lists, like this one, misuse data out of context to draw dramatic conclusions and get more clicks.

The list in question defines success based solely on income six and ten years after starting college – or between one to six years after graduation, depending on one’s path. These data were originally collected by the US Department of Education and only include students who started as first-time freshmen, received federal financial aid in college, and filed a tax return during the years in question. Not included in the count: anyone in graduate school at the time that the data were gathered; international students; transfer students; students who didn’t receive federal financial aid; anyone who didn’t file a tax return during those years. Business owners declaring a loss in an early-year LLC or other such enterprises are included as income-negative.

In an effort to learn as much as possible from this ranking, we looked at our specific cohort of alumni and determined that, once you account for all of these factors, the sample size in question is somewhere between 15-30 individuals for the ten years post-start group, and an even smaller number for the six year group. That’s an exceedingly small sample size and an inappropriate way to accurately measure outcomes. And, because the data looks at anyone who started at the college in a given year regardless of whether they graduated, our results would also include some students who transferred elsewhere after a term or year, or decided not to graduate from college at all.

For the sake of comparison, and to get a better sense of what COA graduates are doing in the first years after they leave the college, we decided to look more closely at the graduating classes of 2005 and 2006 – students who may have been included in the data released by the DOE. Within this excellent group of alumni, six years after graduation we found a handful of educators, a public-interest lawyer, several artists and musicians, multiple new entrepreneurs, a park service employee, a free-lance journalist, organic farmers – exactly what you might expect our younger alumni to be doing. When I looked through this group and learned about what they were doing in the world shortly after graduation and what they’ve gone on to do since, I was even more excited and prepared to shout our mission and message from the rooftops.

Fold the other graduates into the group and the story becomes all the more interesting. We have a large number of students going on to graduate studies in science, education, business, law, medicine, art, and other fields. Recent COA grads seem to be choosing fields where they can continue learning and building their skills – and jobs where they can provide a service or make a positive impact on the environment or their communities. A recent survey of the graduating class of 2013 tells us that within just one year of graduating, 22% had gone on to graduate school and an additional 65% had started working at a job “in their field.” It’s what we love to see: COA students going out into the world and finding meaningful next steps for work or further study.

The ranking and the ensuing conversation on social media inspired us to have a closer look at a particular cohort of our alumni and gain an understanding about factors they’re facing as they graduate and move into life after COA. Do we want our students to be able to repay debt, earn a living wage, and enjoy the individual and familial security higher education can bring? Of course we do. We’ve recently implemented a more robust and consistent system to better understand how our students move through life after graduation. Part of the rationale for focusing as much as we did on alumni in our most recent strategic planning process (the MAP) was both to capture and use alumni data better and to support alumni more effectively in career placement. We certainly can make improvements to help our graduates find the path toward a job or a career that they’re inspired by and that helps serve the planet and humanity.

But placing undue emphasis on income as a metric of success undervalues the importance of careers in the arts, education, the environment, and – broadly speaking – those jobs we as human ecologists typically pursue. We certainly see human ecologists succeeding in business, medicine, law, and other more high-income careers, but adherence to a simplistic measurement of educational success such as income threatens to undercut the institutions and individuals dedicated to making a difference in the world.

There’s nothing wrong with collecting diachronic data and, to a certain extent, playing the game with such lists can help with our educational mission. I will definitely share any such news and my list-loving mind will likely be pretty excited about it. But do I think all of these lists and rankings tell the story of a COA education? No – and I hope you don’t either.

Be well,

Darron

3 thoughts on “Income as a proxy for college excellence?

  1. Elizabeth o says:

    That is great, and one very practical thing (that may not be possible) is to ensure work study pays into social security so that four years worth of work and study does not diminish the ability of graduates to apply for disability.

  2. cedarbough says:

    couldn’t agree more.

  3. Robin Glaser says:

    As the parent of a graduate of the Class of 2013, I welcome your response to COA’s place in this list. My daughter has gone on to a variety of low-paying jobs in the non-profit conservation/ecology sector while pursuing a Master’s degree in that field and starting a consulting business. While she admits that she will probably never be rich, she wouldn’t trade her dedication to the earth and the life on it for anything. The skills and values she took away from COA were priceless.

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