Lehigh's graduate tracking catches Obama's eye

Posted: December 30, 2013

For decades, Lehigh University has carefully charted and publicized the success of its graduates in obtaining jobs.

The university's career services office each year produces a four-inch-thick binder that shows what about 90 percent of the graduates from the previous year are doing. It lists where students work, how they got their jobs, and their median starting salaries, with breakdowns for the university's individual colleges. A summary appears on Lehigh's website.

Now, the Obama administration is taking notice as it develops a national college ratings system.

A senior official in the Department of Education recently cited Lehigh's job placement report as an example of how a university can chart the job success of graduates - one measure being eyed by the Obama administration.

"It highlights a lot of what the president wants," Jeff Appel, a deputy undersecretary, told the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Concerned about the soaring cost of higher education, Obama announced plans for a new college rating system in August during visits to campuses in Upstate New York and Pennsylvania. The administration is looking to develop a system that rates colleges in areas such as tuition, graduation rates, percentage of low-income students served, and how much money students borrowed to attend. Under the proposal, criteria will be developed for use in the 2015-16 academic year. An early version is due out this spring or summer.

The department this month announced that it was seeking input on how to design the system. Department officials have held public forums across the country to get ideas.

The success of graduates - including employment - is one area in which colleges are expected to be measured.

Lehigh's most recent report, issued in March, provides details for the 1,022 graduates in the Class of 2012. Only 3 percent of those who responded to surveys reported they were still job-hunting; 63 percent were employed; 30 percent had continued their schooling; and 4 percent had joined the military or were volunteering, traveling, working part time, or unemployed by choice.

New York was the top state of employment for Lehigh graduates. PricewaterhouseCoopers drew the highest number of workers. And the mean starting salary for an electrical engineering graduate was $79,333.

"We've long held the view that a private research institution with the kind of campus experience we offer should be transparent about what their students are prepared to do after their investment," said Lori Kennedy, Lehigh's director of career services.

The Education Department is reviewing many models and has not decided how the ratings system will be designed, said Jamienne Studley, the department's acting undersecretary.

Lehigh's website reflects "a commitment to help people get a rounded picture of student career patterns after graduation," Studley said. "It's interesting. It's good-looking."

Some schools, she noted, interview alumni periodically to gauge long-range patterns. Swarthmore College in spring 2013 surveyed alumni from the Classes of 1994, 1998, 2002, 2008, and 2012, and has a report on its website.

Studley said she was struck by Lehigh's 90 percent response rate and snapshot showing where graduates were employed over the last decade. (Lehigh's website is www4.lehigh.edu/admissions/undergrad/success/placement.aspx.)

Most schools only get a 60 percent to 65 percent response rate, noted Kennedy, who cited statistics from the National Association of Colleges and Employers, also in Bethlehem, Pa.

Lehigh began tracking its graduates in the 1980s.

"We've gotten smarter every year with rolling in different strategies for collecting the data," she said.

Two years ago, for example, the 11-member career services office began surveying seniors when they came into the bookstore in March to collect their caps and gowns. Over the course of a year, the office e-mails graduates, but also solicits information from student affairs officials, faculty, and coaches, who tend to know the postgraduation plans of their students, and employers who typically hire Lehigh graduates. In the fall, the office contacts graduates to ask about their jobs and offers help, she said.

The final reports are distributed to deans and other leaders across campus and used as a recruiting tool, Kennedy said.

The information also helps current students in their job searches, she said. They can see, for example, that the majority of 2012 graduates - 42 percent - got their first job through the university's Career Information Exchange, the job-posting system. Others found employment through an internship, referral by faculty, career fair, or other outlet.

"Last week, I met with a journalism major who is a senior. We were able to pull out data for her major," Kennedy said. "We have decades of data we can go back through."


ssnyder@phillynews.com

215-854-4693 @ssnyderinq

www.inquirer.com/campusinq

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