Output Metrics Increasingly Influence College Decisions

While they're useful, don't solely rely on output metrics like starting salary when choosing a school.

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For decades, most prospective college students have targeted colleges based on input criteria, namely average SAT scores and high school GPAs of the previous year's freshman class. Those metrics serve as a barometer, with the "best" schools typically accepting students who posted the highest numbers on admissions exams and in the classroom.

However, with the job market still tight and the number of college graduates nationwide growing every year, should prospective college students examine output data such as average starting salary, job placement rate, four-year graduation rate, and the percentage of students who go on to attend grad school within a few years? College admissions experts are split.

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Business school students have put an increasing value on output metrics to help them determine the quality of a school and ultimately where to attend, notes Jamie Warder, CEO of college admissions consulting firm Admit Insights. He feels a similar evolution could be in its infancy on the college level. "The value of college is certainly the knowledge you attain, but [also] the ability to leverage that knowledge into a job or grad school."

College admissions consultant Paul Mulkerrin worries that if students place too much weight on the potential outcomes of their higher education when choosing a school, they may be missing the point of college entirely. Developing a narrow set of skills directly applicable to a specific job after college rather than honing skills such as persuasive speech and critical analysis could harm students in the long term, he worries.

"The risk is that focusing on immediately measurable placement and salary statistics will encourage students and parents to emphasize the most perishable parts of a college education—the skills and content needed in today's workplace, not tomorrow's," Mulkerrin says.

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Looking at inputs and outputs can be an effective way of finding a school that both fits you now and will meet your future goals. Bev Taylor, director of college admissions consulting firm The Ivy Coach, notes that input data and output data typically correlate. She cites that graduates from Ivy League schools, which consistently boast input measures that rank among the top in the nation, make about 32 percent more at graduation than students from other colleges, on average.

If landing a job after college is a student's primary concern, he or she can ask for output statistics directly from the school's admissions office or career center. For instance, students can seek out a school's four-year graduation rate, recommends Todd Johnson, a college admissions consultant, rather than the commonly cited and widely accepted six-year rate. Since most students should enter school with the intent of graduating on time, the six-year rates aren't as meaningful. "After all, they are four-year colleges," he says.

But it's important to go beyond the metrics when making a college choice, experts say. College admissions consultants universally recommend that prospective students pay a visit to the college's career center before enrolling. Get a feel for the counselors, how much time they may be able to devote to a student individually, and what programs or partnerships with businesses the school offers.

Irena Smith, a college admissions consultant, says she also encourages students to speak with seniors at the school or recent graduates. She maintains they'll give an honest assessment, while schools may often sugarcoat the subject for prospective students. "For visiting students, they put on a good face and say, 'We do this, and that, and have seminars,' and you enroll in the school and you find out that that was really a lot of window dressing."

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Ultimately, admissions consultants who've worked with hundreds of students have found that it's not a school's rank, input metrics, or output metrics that will guarantee success; that responsibility falls squarely on the student's shoulders.