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The Limits of Salary as a Measure of University Success

While post-graduation salary has gained popularity as a metric for student success, it doesn’t always accurately reflect the skills a student learned or their potential for growth. A more holistic approach focused on career development may be more reflective of true success.

As the urgency around enrollment continues to be a major pain point for higher education leaders across the country, there is renewed interest in finding ways to attract students with better value propositions. Salary, once again, is a main focus. As someone who has been responsible for transforming career services and improving career outcomes, salary, while sexy and topical, is an ineffective measure for determining the success of universities and academic programs.

Salary: Why and Why Not

Salary does have a role. Given rising tuition costs, we expect that graduates are positioned to pay back student debt and to improve their economic position. These positive outcomes have a lifelong impact on our graduates. However, some institutions are utilizing salary and career outcomes as the basis for recruiting students and evaluating the success and viability of academic programs. Some recent examples include the State of Ohio’s proposed legislation to tell prospective students what salary they are likely to make and the Colorado Commission of Higher Education’s development of an economic value for academic programs. While we may need salary to show economic mobility, it has limitations for other outcomes that warrant further consideration.

Let’s explore what goes into salary determination. Job offers are the result of at least five personal factors above and beyond geographical and industry trends: [1] professional experience (skills development through academic programs, internships, research, volunteerism); [2] job application and interview performance (quality and customization of application materials, test performance, interview readiness, ability to sell themselves); [3] access and social capital (personal and professional connections to the organization and hiring manager, knowledge of the industry and organization); [4] ethnicity (e.g., consider earnings for Hispanic/Latino people at $.73 and Black people at $.76 per dollar); and [5] gender (women at $.76 per dollar according to the US Department of Labor). Of all these, demographics are the most significant indicator of prospective income.

With so much subjectivity and bias tied to salary determinations, it is a problematic measure unto itself. Z. Mabel, CJ Libassi and M. Hurwitz from the College Board demonstrate that “consumers can easily draw misleading conclusions about institutional quality when using publicly available earnings data to compare institutions.” Elite institutions, who admit more white students from privileged backgrounds, will produce graduates with higher earnings. Schools that aim to increase ethnic and socioeconomic diversity in their student population may find that average salaries drop, even if they are producing graduates whose incomes show improved economic standing. We’re working against our own interests.

“If you don’t know where you are going, you’ll end up someplace else.”—Yogi Berra

It has been well documented that college graduates’ earnings potential, employment prospects and life expectancy are significantly better than those with a high school degree. Therein lies the value proposition for a four-year degree. So, what are we trying to get at by continuing to measure salary anyway?

Politics aside, I believe we are using salary as a proxy for career preparation: If a student successfully secured a job at an appropriate wage, then the university has done its job. While this may be equally crude and cringe-worthy, my point is this: It’s important to think about what we’re measuring and why.

If university resources are aligned with the goal to secure higher salaries for students, then we’re placing value on well-paying cities and industries and directing students toward them. While students want to earn a good income, they are just as interested in contributing to the workplace and making a positive impact. Utilizing salary as an institutional metric leads to problematic implications, such as deprioritizing service, government and education occupations; devaluing academic programs that tend to produce graduates in these lower-paying industries; and driving graduates to other states for employment, which runs counter to the goals of many institutions. At one institution where I worked, I saw these contradictions play out in a strategic planning session. University leadership wanted increased salaries to be a clear outcome while also increasing job placement in the small, economically challenged Midwestern city and state. As the career services lead, how should I line up student supports and employers to reach these incongruent goals? Metrics reflect an institution’s values, and those values should align with students’ needs. We need to get clear on what we’re trying to accomplish with our objectives, so we can align intention and resources with the right outcomes.

Focusing on Career Success

If we instead focus on positioning students for long-term career success, we are mobilizing resources to ensure graduates will be successful in their first and subsequent jobs and providing much more compelling enticements to enroll. Rather than emphasizing salary, we’re helping students translate the skills they are learning in their academic programs to be able to market themselves effectively. We’re ensuring students have the professional and leadership development experiences they need, and we’re creating opportunities to enable them to make an impact and to be prepared for career agility. We have the career exploration and development supports and tools they need to articulate who they are, what they want to do and how they plan to get there. And we have provided a robust network of alumni, friends and parents willing to mentor students and open doors for them.

This more holistic approach will provide opportunities to better align the institution’s academic mission with the services that support career development and should have the resources to support integration in place. It will demonstrate to students and their families that the institution cares about their postgraduate success and enable better strategic partnerships with Workforce Development initiatives and local employers. If we are successful, students should graduate into jobs that are not only financially sustaining but meaningful and engage them in their work. Moreover, successful graduates will look back on their educational experience in college positively and are more likely to give back in terms of mentorship and philanthropy.

While measuring successful postgraduate career success cannot easily be boiled down to one metric like salary, the good news is that many institutions are already collecting some, if not all, of the relevant data. Many schools utilize first destination surveys (partnering with the National Association of Colleges and Employers) that collect data on students’ first jobs and graduate school placements and are easily customized. Two other tools worth exploring track graduates’ perceptions of their education and its impact on their careers include: Gallup’s Alumni Survey (formerly Gallup-Purdue Poll) and the Career Leadership Collective’s National Alumni Career Mobility Survey.

What’s exciting about expanding salary to career success is that institutions can tell a much more robust and inspiring story about the ways they support students through degree completion and beyond. This more nuanced messaging and programming will mobilize prospective students and families and illustrate the meaningful and productive support students need to find their post-graduation path and pursue it successfully.

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