What will that degree get you in the real world? Kentucky students about to find out

FRANKFORT, Ky. – Every college promises a good education and job readiness to graduates, but which ones really deliver?

That answer will become clearer next month for Kentucky's public universities, colleges and technical centers when state officials release a report that breaks down what jobs graduates are landing and how much they're making, among other vital statistics. Plans are in the works to add private schools like Thomas More College and, later, for-profit institutions like ITT Tech.

It's the most ambitious step in the Commonwealth's ongoing effort to give prospective students, parents and high school counselors more information about what students can expect to gain from a given major or certification program at a given institution.

"Right now, we make a lot of decisions without a lot of good information," said Charles McGrew, Executive Director of the Kentucky Center for Education and Workforce Statistics  which is compiling the stats. "This (new report) let's people know what to expect from programs."

For the first time, the state will release statistics about the types of jobs and what salaries graduates of public colleges and vocational schools are landing in the state — broken down by school and major.

The information was mandated by a law passed in April – House Bill 87  – that orders the statistics be compiled and be distributed on the websites of public institutions and state agencies, in catalogs and be made available to "every high school guidance and career counselor."

"I don't think any state has done this before," McGrew said. "We will try to cover the whole gamut."

Kentucky moved toward the comprehensive look at how higher education is working in the state when it produced reports in 2013 that looked at outcomes on a statewide level but without breaking down individual institutional performances.

The state's effort was boosted by a $908,000 federal grant awarded on June 24 to expand data collection to improve education and workforce programs.

“These funds will allow us to collect high-quality longitudinal data to improve our employment and training programs for Kentuckians,” Kentucky Education and Workforce Development Cabinet Secretary Tom Zawacki said. “This information is valuable to workers, employers, students and officials because it can help them make more informed decisions about the future.”

Some Reservations

Leaders at Northern Kentucky University, Thomas More College and Gateway Community and Technical College generally welcomed the move toward more transparency but expressed some reservations about the details of what information is being gathered and what isn't.

"The intent of the bill is very good," NKU President Geoffrey Mearns said. "One of the appropriate policy goals for higher education is ensuring that our graduates are ready for a successful career. I don't think that should be the only objective, but it should be one of a small number of objectives."

Mearns expressed concern that statistics to be released in July will focus exclusively on graduates who work in Kentucky. NKU draws heavily from the Ohio side of Greater Cincinnati's 2 million residents, and many of its Kentucky graduates commute to jobs in downtown and uptown Cincinnati.

"That's not a meaningful statistic for a university situated on a border," he said. "We could have many employed graduates living in Kentucky, but if they work in Ohio, we get a zero. The statistics have to be measured in a much broader way."

McGrew acknowledged the limits of reporting on Kentucky-only statistics and said that his office plans to expand what it collects.

"We are working to obtain out-of-state employment data to help fill in some of these holes for schools like NKU," he said. "There is a wage record exchange process to get data from out-of-state, but Ohio wasn’t participating until recently, so we are hopeful that by the fall we can plug in some of their out-of-state data."

McGrew said he is working with Kentucky tax officials to gather anonymous job and salary information about residents who live in other states, "which will provide more information about the people in Northern Kentucky who cross the bridge to work."

Thomas More President David Armstrong is confident that the statistics will reflect well on his private Catholic college.

"Studies show private liberal arts colleges usually have higher placement and graduation rates and graduate students sooner generally," he said, adding that they have close to a 90 percent job placement rate.

"We need to do a better job of telling the story of how important college education is, and these statistics will help do that," Armstrong said.

"Any time there is more transparency and more reporting on the return on investment, that's a good thing," he said.

"The tough part is how are these statistics are going to be constructed and who is going to make sure that people are going to use the same metrics."

Tim Shaughnessy, Gateway Community and Technical College associate provost, said tracking outcomes is a critical piece of Gateway's mission.

"We certainly want to adhere to the spirit of the legislation to accurately communicate the alignment of our programs with job opportunities," he said. "It's one of the missions that Gateway takes very seriously. And we certainly understand from a student perspective and parent perspective why they would want this information."

They were compiled by linking the college and university records collected from the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education with the employment and earnings records that were reported to Kentucky’s Office of Employment and Training  through the Unemployment Insurance program.

In the future, linking information about potential earnings with information about financial aid and tuition could help students and parents make more informed decisions about their education," McGrew wrote.

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