You’re Measured by ‘Outcomes’ – But Which Ones?

Right now, there is a major national debate about whether for-profit schools are a reasonable education model or if they should be eradicated and replaced with non-profit, public institutions. Arguments can be made to support both sides, but a trend that I’ve noticed is that while discussing the effectiveness or quality of for-profit schools, the word “outcomes” is thrown around constantly.

Just last week, a hearing took place in the House of Representatives titled “Oversight of For-Profit Colleges: Protecting Students and Taxpayers from Predatory Colleges.” It discussed the oversight of for-profit schools and whether or not their corporate structure proved to be predatory towards students. When asked if all for-profits should be done away with, the panelists, who had highlighted the abusive characteristics of bad players earlier in the hearing, argued that for-profits are actually positive and should remain. One statement they made in support of this sentiment was that “the outcomes are quite good.” Rather than defining what “outcomes” they were referring to, they left the comment vague and ambiguous, brushing past it to make additional supporting claims. So, what exactly does the term “outcomes” mean?

Possible Interpretations

During my research, I’ve come across a handful of different examples of “outcomes”, including:

  • Graduation rates: the percentage of students who complete their program on time.
  • Retention rates: the percentage of students who continue their education at the same school next year.
  • Job placement rates: the percentage of graduates who start a job within six months of graduation.
  • Certification rates: the percentage of graduates who go on to pass certification exams in their field of study.
  • Salary after graduation: the annual salary students earn at their first job after graduation
  • Debt to earnings ratio: a measure of a student's income after graduation vs. the debt they took on to attend school.
  • Job readiness: how prepared a student is to begin a job.

Certainly, there is some correlation between these metrics. In a perfect world, a school would have the highest possible scores across the board. But clearly, it comes down to whose perspective is being taken into account when discussing the “outcomes” of a school. Student’s look at “outcomes” to make decisions on where to attend. Accreditation bodies consider “outcomes,” amongst other things, to ensure federal funds are being used effectively. The job market looks at “outcomes” to determine which schools to hire graduates from. Owners and shareholders look at “outcomes” to judge the performance of their business. So, what’s the standard? And if there isn’t one, who’s going to set it?

A Call For Consistency

As a high level administrator, your school maintains accreditation based on many factors, one of which is, you guessed it, “attention to outcomes.” Well, wouldn’t it be helpful for you to know which metrics are actually being examined by accreditors? That way, you can take steps to ensure that your school is delivering the specified “outcomes” that accreditors are looking for. And ideally, having a common set of “outcomes” agreed upon by schools, accreditors, and the government would be the best way to evaluate the performance of all sectors of higher education. As Steve Gunderson, CEO of CECU, said in response to a suggestion for more regulation in the sector: “We should move toward one common set of regulations and laws for all of higher education, and common outcome metrics.”

We’d like to know: what does “outcomes” mean to you? What “outcomes” do you have in mind when you design your programs? Leave a comment in the field below. We encourage you to share this article with colleagues to let them weigh in on what the term “outcomes” means to them.

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