HARI SREENIVASAN, PBS NEWSHOUR WEEKEND ANCHOR: If you add up all the college student loan debt in the United States, it stands at $1.4 trillion– with a T. That’s more than Americans owe on their credits cards or car loans and just about anything else except their homes.
This month, as students begin deciding which universities they’ll attend in the fall, families increasingly want more proof that the high costs of a college degree are worth it. Beyond graduation rates, they’re looking for data on job placement rates and salaries. But getting that information reliably is not easy.
“Wall Street Journal” reporter Melissa Korn knows about that, as she researched her story. She joins me now in the studio.
So, what’s so difficult about finding an apples-to-apples comparison of how students do when they graduate college?
MELISSA KORN, WALL STREET JOURNAL: Nobody has the same apples. The federal government looks at graduation rates. They look at students who are enrolled for the first time on a full-time basis. So, meaning, they didn’t transfer somewhere. They didn’t stop in/stop out, and they are not going part time.
And that leaves out a huge swath of students, of today’s college students, many of whom are adults attending school part time or started school, left, to go back to another school. So, even though the most basic graduation rate isn’t a very clear number.
SREENIVASAN: One of the things that we forget is the sort of Hollywood notion of a four year residential experience is not the norm of how most people get their education after high school.
KORN: Right, so that 40 percent of college students is now attending part time. That’s a huge shift over the past few decades. You have people who go to commuter schools, they go to school at night, they go to school online. They don’t live in Ivy covered dorms, it’s just not the way college is now for most people.
So, this phrase of the nontraditional student, they’re now the traditional student. And getting data on them, getting really useful data on how they fare at college and how they fare afterwards is really hard.
SREENIVASAN: What about that comparison? A lot of parents are thinking about is that is this student going to get a job or are they going to move back into my basement?
KORN: I know parents don’t necessarily want their kids moving back into their basement. So, it really depends on what the student is going to be studying, and, you know, the broader economic conditions at the time of their graduation. So, it’s not very helpful to say — for a school to say 80 percent of our graduates are employed within six months of graduation, because that’s often self-reported data from the graduates. Six months after graduation doesn’t say much about where they will be five or ten years after graduation. It’s also an average. So, maybe all the engineers are employed but none of the film majors are.
So, you really have to be drilling down department by department, major by major, and you can’t just rely on the schools for this information because they don’t have it themselves. They don’t do a great job tracking their graduates.
SREENIVASAN: And they don’t really have an incentive to do so.
SREENIVASAN: If anything, it kind of exposes their competitive advantage or disadvantage against other schools.
KORN: Right. So, they have an incentive to highlight the really great success stories.
KORN: And when they have good numbers, they will boast about those. But oftentimes when you have student outcome surveys that they conduct themselves, they have response rates of 15 percent, 20 percent, 25 percent. So, it’s not really telling you what is happening with the graduating class.
And yes, if they have a lot of students going or graduates going into teaching or social work, which are incredibly important areas for graduates to go into, they don’t pay very well. So, their earnings numbers might not look so good. They might keep that quiet.
SREENIVASAN: Melissa Korn from “The Wall Street Journal” — thanks so much.
KORN: Thanks for having me.