Surprise: Alumni Love Their Colleges

December 14, 2010

WASHINGTON -- College officials praised the results of a survey released Monday saying that college graduates’ apparent satisfaction reaffirms the value and resilience of American higher education. But the survey methods -- along with a lack of information regarding majors and institution types -- has others struggling to find meaning in the data.

The survey, which was commissioned by the American Council of Education, hinges on one finding in particular: that despite a harsh economic climate for recent graduates and a harsh political one for colleges in general, 89 percent of alumni say their degree was worth the time and money.

The survey began early this year and comprised two parts: a national section, which surveyed 400 randomly selected alumni of two-year and four-year colleges and universities; and an institutional section, which surveyed 400 graduates from 22 institutions that volunteered to participate. (Of the latter, the only institutions identified by name are those whose presidents participated in a conference call with reporters Monday: New York University, Miami Dade College, and the University of Wisconsin System. All three commented favorably about the survey.)

In the conference call, NYU's president, John Sexton, said he was “heartened” by the findings, and Kevin P. Reilly, president of the Wisconsin system, said that colleges could use the results as leverage to get legislators to make higher education a priority in the upcoming budget-setting cycle. In a news release issued Monday, ACE's president, Molly Corbett Broad, who participated in the conference call as well, also hinted at the political climate.

“In light of numerous efforts to increase the number of college graduates and recent scrutiny of the value of postsecondary credentials, the alumni voice is an important component in the assessment of our institutions,” Broad said.

That may be true, but the data leave many questions unanswered. ACE did not ask for the respondents’ majors in either survey, nor did it ask for the institution type in the national survey. The results are also heavily weighted toward older graduates, with 35- to 39-year-olds making up 52 percent of the national respondents, and 25- to 34-year-olds making up the rest.

Without more information, it’s difficult to analyze the data. “Given what I don’t know, it’s hard for me to make any judgment whatsoever,” said Richard Hersh, senior consultant at the higher education consulting firm Keeling & Associates, and former president of Hobart and William Smith Colleges. “I think there’s a mixed bag at best, and you can decide for yourself what you thought the motivation for the survey was.”

And with only graduates participating in the survey -- a seemingly well-off national sample of graduates, at that, with only a 2 percent unemployment rate -- the voice of unsuccessful college students is shut out. “They’re calling graduates -- by definition, successful college students,” Hersh said. “You would predict you’d get a reasonably positive response." (Recent data show that just under half of students at postsecondary institutions earned a certificate or degree after six years.)

“From a scientific view, it’s somewhat suspect,” said Richard Vedder, director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, a professor of economics at Ohio University, and a frequent critic of higher education. “It isn’t exactly a random scientific survey to look at 400 people in a world which has more than 40 million college graduates.”

Vedder also said the survey results are “clouded” by the predominance of older respondents. “Distance lends enchantment, and so alumni who graduated 10 or 15 years ago from college tend to have a more positive view of their college experience.”

For the most part, the two surveys yielded similar results, though people were more generous in recalling their own institution than toward colleges in general (which is consistent with other research published earlier this year).

Among the national survey’s other findings:

  • Responding to questions about their personal experience, 81 percent of respondents said they were “effectively prepared with the knowledge and skills [they] needed,” 79 percent said they would attend the same school, and 76 percent said the tuition price was fair.
  • Despite their apparent satisfaction with their own educations, only 62 percent of respondents said colleges are preparing students for the modern work force. Likewise, 61 percent said America’s colleges are prepared to “meet the challenges of the future.” At the same time, 88 percent said they have a favorable impression of colleges in general.
  • A plurality of respondents -- 43 percent -- said their undergraduate experience prepared them for their current job “adequately.” That was followed by “more than adequately,” with 25 percent; and “exceptionally well,” with 17 percent. Fifteen percent said they were prepared less than adequately or worse.
  • When asked what is the most important role of colleges, 31 percent said to teach students how to learn and think critically. In the second-most popular response, 28 percent said it is to prepare students for employment.
  • Forty percent of respondents said students and their families should be primarily responsible for funding higher education, while 30 percent place that responsibility on the federal government. When it comes to keeping education affordable, though, 52 percent say the institution itself should handle it.

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