Henrico County VA

State to publish college grads’ employment rates

Amanda Neely, a 22-year-old nursing student, graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University on Saturday. She is anxious about finding a job.

“There are so many students graduating from the same nursing program that I am, and such a disproportionately small number of positions available. People assume that because I chose this field, I’m protected from unemployment, but I’m not convinced,” Neely said.

She has reasons for concern: Half of young college graduates are unemployed or underemployed, stuck in jobs that don’t use their skills and knowledge, according to recent research by the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University.

Degrees in such fields as nursing, accounting or computer science used to be a ticket to a high-paying job. But now, even those degrees are vulnerable – and graduates who majored in the arts and humanities are really struggling, according to the data analysis, which was conducted for the Associated Press.

Moreover, a 2011 survey found that young college graduates had an unemployment rate of more than 9 percent – higher than the national average and double the rate of other college graduates.

Some economists blame the recession for the dismal job prospects of today’s college graduates. Other experts say students choose impractical majors, such as history or philosophy, over subjects like science or engineering. However, little attention has focused on the schools themselves and how well they prepare students for jobs.

That will change next year. Under a new law, state officials will publish online the employment rates and average salaries for graduates from each institution of higher education in Virginia. Prospective students and their parents will be able to see the statistics for each program and type of degree at each school.

The State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, which oversees colleges and universities, will post the data on its website by Aug. 1, 2013. The data will include “the proportion of graduates with employment at 18 months and five years after the date of graduation for each public institution and each private nonprofit institution of higher education eligible to participate in the Tuition Assistance Grant Program.”

The reports will include “the percentage of graduates known to be employed in the Commonwealth, the average salary, and the average higher education-related debt for the graduates on which the data is based.”

The data will provide a report card of sorts for Virginia colleges and universities – showing how successful each institution’s graduates have been at landing jobs.

The new law was sponsored by Delegate Chris Stolle, a Republican from Virginia Beach. His proposal, House Bill 639, passed 95-5 in the House and 40-0 in the Senate. Gov. Bob McDonnell signed the bill into law on April 9.

A federal law, the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008, already requires schools to collect this information. It says colleges must make available to current and prospective students “information regarding the placement in employment of, and types of employment obtained by, graduates of the institution’s degree or certificate programs,” as well as the types of graduate and professional education in which their graduates enroll.

But some officials question the validity of the data collected under the federal law, and it is not widely disseminated. Few schools post their statistics online, and no website aggregates the data and makes it searchable.

Under Virginia’s new law, the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia will be largely responsible for the collection of college graduate employment data. With help from a $17.5 million federal grant, SCHEV will combine information from schools with data from agencies such as the Virginia Employment Commission and the state Department of Education. The data will be merged into a central database and identifying information will be removed to protect the graduates’ privacy.

The final result: Before enrolling in a school or declaring a major, prospective students will be able to see the job outlook for recent graduates.

“When people are looking into certain majors, they should be able to go and say, ‘Well, how many of these people are employed?’ ” said Kirsten Nelson, a public relations official with SCHEV.

Nelson said the data collected under the federal Higher Education Opportunity Act is flawed. When schools survey their graduates about employment, the response rates are notoriously low – about 6 percent. So the surveys don’t accurately capture the overall picture of graduates’ employment. Moreover, while the federal statute requires schools to college the data, they can get by without publicly reporting it.

Much of the graduate employment information collected under the federal law is useless, said Kevin Carey of EducationSector.org, a nonprofit think tank based in Washington, D.C.

Carey and Andrew Kelli published a report in 2011 called “The Truth Behind Higher Education Disclosure Laws,” examining colleges’ compliance with the Higher Education Opportunity Act. They found that only about 60 percent of schools provided any information at all about the employment of recent graduates.

According to the report, a number of colleges said the graduate employment information was available from their career services office – but only to students who had already enrolled. Others said they surveyed graduates about their employment status but would not share the results.

To provide a more accurate picture, Daniel said SCHEV plans to track students’ progress through secondary education and into the workforce. However, this method also may have problems.

SCHEV will track only students who complete primary and secondary education in Virginia and then seek employment in the state. It will not track students who move to other states for jobs after graduation.

Even so, any information may be better than nothing. Some recent graduates who are struggling to find work say they wish they had known more in advance about the job prospects associated with their degree. That information might have affected their decision about where to go to college or what to study.

“I think that finding a job after college is simple; it’s finding a job in your field that is the difficult part,” said Moretta Browne, who graduated from VCU in 2011 with a degree in advertising.

“Food service and retail are always looking for new hires, but that isn’t what I went to school for. I’ve spent a lot of energy trying to put together the perfect portfolio and résumé, and send it out, but with no success. I recently landed a job as a bank teller, but I also just read in a news article that my position may be non-existent in the near future.”
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