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Experts: Overall success of graduates difficult to measure

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Posted: Saturday, May 17, 2014 10:23 pm | Updated: 4:18 pm, Sun May 18, 2014.

By most standards, graduates of the University of Virginia generally go on to become successful. But how exactly does UVa stand up to its competitors? Is it any better than public powerhouses like the University of North Carolina or the University of Michigan? And does it compare to elite private institutions?

At this point, it depends on who you ask.

Administrators and analysts in the field of higher education are still unsure of how best to measure student success after college. Placement rates and average salary are two measures used to compare success rates, but there are still disadvantages and questions associated with each one.

The Obama administration is in the process of creating a national ratings system, called the College Scorecard, that would measure performance and link it to federal financial aid. Among the broad criteria for the system is the outcome of graduates, but officials at the Department of Education are still researching ways to accurately capture that. The scorecard is supposed to be unveiled before the 2015 academic year.

According to PayScale, an organization that collects data on worker salaries, the University of Virginia is at the very top of the list when it comes to yearly return on investment — if you’re an in-state student. Taking financial aid into account, in-state students see an annual return on investment of about 17 percent, with a median annual starting salary of $51,000 and a median mid-career salary of $95,700.

UVa is also one of the most expensive — in terms of sticker price — schools for out-of-state students, charging them $42,000 before financial aid. Taking financial aid into account, it drops to 127th on a list of about 900 colleges in annual return on investment; it ranks 29th among public institutions for out-of-state students.

“Students who attend the University of Virginia receive one of the best values in all of higher education, and graduates of the university find the return on that investment to be valuable as well,” said McGregor McCance, a spokesman for the university.

An in-depth analysis of the survey from The Atlantic magazine earlier this year gave UVa high marks. The magazine noted that, for in-state students, degrees in computer science, engineering, economics and business at UVa have a higher annual return on investment than any university in the country.

UVa also compares favorably in terms of student debt. According to the Project for Student Debt, the class of 2012 (the latest data available) graduated with an average of $29,400 of debt. The State Council of Higher Education for Virginia found the average debt at graduation for UVa’s class of 2012 was $21,108. That’s lower than the statewide mean of $26,407.

But Kirsten Nelson, a spokeswoman for the council, said any post-graduate statistics come with a caveat — participation in surveys is low.

“Surveys done of current students or current students get a response rate of maybe 6 percent,” Nelson said, adding that SCHEV only tracks students who stay in Virginia. “For whatever reason, when someone graduates from college, they’re not interested in filling out a survey.”

Nelson also pointed out that although salary and return on investment are important to many students, they are not the be-all, end-all measure of success — some students will sacrifice high salaries if the career they aspire to is relatively low-paying.

Another, more controversial measure of success is placement — the percentages of students who find full-time work or enroll in graduate school after graduation. This statistic is often used for law school and business school graduates, but less so for undergraduates.

According to research from the university’s largest school — the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences — 63 percent of respondents to a survey of last year’s graduating class are either employed or enrolled in graduate school. Another 7 percent said they’re pursuing other plans, like traveling or a doing a fellowship; 6 percent said they were seeking admission to graduate school.

Ranking and comparing UVa to other universities is where it gets tricky. A few universities attempt to track placement, but there are no agreed-upon standards — whether to count internships and part-time work, for example, or how far from graduation to ask students.

Ronald Ehrenberg, director of the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute, said it’s difficult to get a handle on placement. To be useful, he said, placement rates would need to distinguish between students in different fields and compare those across universities. Even then, they may not prove as useful as income statistics.

“There is a lot of mobility across jobs by young college graduates and that is the reason that the use of post graduate income statistics several years out of college may be a much better measure,” Ehrenberg said.

Two graduate fields track placement closely — law and business. By the school’s own numbers, 97.8 percent of last year’s graduating class was employed nine months after graduation.

Law School Transparency, a nonprofit organization focusing on law school employment and debt, ranks UVa at the top of its national employment rankings. According to the organization, 95.6 percent of 2013 UVa graduates had found full-time, permanent legal jobs, while just 2.5 percent were underemployed. On both measures, it scores better than the University of Chicago and Harvard University.

About 90 percent of graduates of the Darden School of Business in 2013 received job offers within three months, ranking 27th among the nation’s top 30 business schools, according to a survey by online business school publication Poets & Quants.

The university is working on a university-wide assessment of outcomes, but administrators are still not sure how that will look. Everette Fortner, executive director for professional development in the Darden School, said a useful placement metric would take into account what students wanted to do with their degree and how successful they were in achieving that.

“Each school’s students are different, with different objectives, so only by measuring some degree of satisfaction will you be able to compare across schools and in the absolute,” Fortner said.

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