Colleges, Universities and Career Schools Vary Widely in Their Outcomes

As they plan for the future, America’s students and families keep asking whether college is worth the cost.

Hundreds of studies, a robust evidence-base and myriad testimonials from millions of graduates across our nation tell us the same answer: Education beyond high school enables Americans to get more out of life than ever before.

So why do we keep asking the same question? Because all postsecondary institutions are not created equal: they differ enormously in quality, cost, breadth and depth. There is tremendous variation in standards, assessments, overall performance and outcomes.

Too many of us think in 20th century terms. In decades past, earning a certificate or a degree was a stopping point.. In the 21st century, however, there’s no finish line to a postsecondary education. Today, degrees, certificates, certifications, and even the new wave of ‘badges’ crisscrossing both public and private higher education sectors, should mark what people have learned, backed up by demonstrations and portfolios about what they can actually do on the job, in their communities and throughout their lives. We’re not only educating students for jobs today, but for their contributions to our nation’s civic and social health, for the well-being of our democratic society.

Data sets that measure college outcomes don’t take into account four important factors: the varying preparation levels of students when they enter college, the financial resources they can apply to college costs, the amount of time they work and how much time they devote to their studies.

A couple other factors add a complication to measuring outcomes across the various institutions. The majority of college students are juggling work, family and community obligations so many attend part-time. Yet, the outcomes historically reported at the federal level only track first-time, full-time students. And, two out of three students today acquire a postsecondary education at more than one institution.

Many students don’t realize that they actually could go to a college with a higher graduation rate at a lower cost if they spent more time on the front end comparing and contrasting their options. Far too many students sell themselves short, thinking they’re not smart enough, that it’s too expensive, or that higher education is for others, not for them. As a nation, we need to work much harder to dispel these myths.

Students and families should “stretch” their thinking and look at the performance of different postsecondary institutions: a state university compared to a private four-year college compared to a community college compared to a major research university compared to a for-profit institution compared to a career school.

In the first term of the Obama Administration, the College Scorecard was created to help families make better informed choices by looking

at postsecondary institutions’ graduation rate, tuition cost (net price, not sticker price) and student debt. Albeit these are gross measures that don’t account for quality, it’s critical that at a minimum, students and families take the time to compare several institutions before choosing which one to attend, and, in doing so, look at as many outcomes as they can. Quality, cost and attention to the needs of the diverse range of students are criteria that should replace location, convenience and “where your friends are going” to identify the best set of options a student should investigate.

I studied career ladders in the nursing profession for five years serving on the Workforce Investment Board in Silicon Valley. Our team learned that registered nurses who graduated from community colleges performed on a par with their counterparts who earned B.S.N degrees from university programs.

Few will quibble with the fact that we need more highly trained nurses in our nation, nurses with baccalaureate, master’s and doctoral degrees as well as those with associate degrees. But this is where the comparison gets messy. Time, cost and effort are critical factors that prospective nursing students should consider when deciding whether the best choice is a university, a community college or a training program. Further, many students don’t differentiate between a healthcare training program that may offer a certificate, but not the degree or preparation to sit for a licensing exam like the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN.)

In the healthcare example, the California Board of Registered Nursing publishes by institution how many graduates took the NCLEX-RN and how many passed, important for prospective students to know. They should also look at graduation rates, cost, average student debt after graduating, and the likelihood of employment, to make an informed choice that will help them advance in their careers and in life.

We are fortunate to have premier postsecondary institutions when we compare the United States to any other country in the world. It is because we have diverse pathways and pipelines from entry-level skill building and training for a specific job to higher levels of knowledge and skill that enable critical thinking, reasoning and analytical skills that evolve from a strong general education foundation and specialized study in a wide variety of disciplines. When deciding to invest the time, money and effort in higher education, it’s more important than ever to compare and contrast the different institutions on specific outcomes because they differ far more than they are similar. America’s students deserve the best.

1. Pew Research Center, 2013: 86% of college graduates reported that college was a good investment for them.
2. Caroline Hoxby and Christopher Avery, “The Missing “One- Offs:” The Hidden Supply of High-Achieving, Low Income Students,” The Brookings Institution, March 2013.
3. American Association of Colleges and Universities