Liz Middleton is a former college and career counselor and was a Summer 2020 Graduate Intern at the Data Quality Campaign. She recently completed her Master of Public Policy degree and is passionate about using data to improve student outcomes in college and the workforce.
While working as a college counselor, I thought often about what data I wished I’d had when helping my students make postsecondary decisions. Choosing what step to take after high school graduation—entering the workforce, enlisting in the military, enrolling in a certificate and training program, or going off to a four-year college—is a massive decision, as well as a massive investment of time and money, for students. To do this, students need robust information about what options are out there, how successful programs are in graduating students, and what careers they’ll be prepared for upon completing a program to guide their decisionmaking.
When a student came to meet with me, we could look at a given school’s six-year graduation rate, fill out its net price calculator, and view employment rates for its graduates. Still, I felt like we were missing information. Sure, the overall graduation rate looked solid, but were there gaps for different student populations? Did students of color, or low-income students, or students with disabilities fare differently than the “average” statistics reported on the school’s website? Did those employment rates vary by major? Were those jobs only available in certain geographic locations?
From a counselor’s perspective, here is the full scope of data that I’d want my students to have, in order to help them make informed college and career choices.
Students need robust data on postsecondary outcomes for all of the postsecondary education and training programs in which they might enroll. And this data must be disaggregated. Students should have access to information on net price, average loan debt, graduation rate, starting salary, and employment rates for graduates. They need this data for the institution as a whole, but also by major or program within each institution. Reporting this data at the institutional level alone could hide underperforming programs—or programs that are performing better than average—and keep students from truly understanding what they’re signing up for. This information also must be disaggregated by student characteristics like race and ethnicity, income, enrollment status, and other dimensions along which disparities might exist. Without this information, a student might pass up an outstanding cybersecurity program with a high job placement rate, all because the institution’s average graduation rate—including lower-performing programs—was low.
Students typically enroll in postsecondary education to prepare for a career; students must also have data on what jobs exist and are available to them after graduation. Students need data on which industries are growing and hiring, where jobs are located, what they pay, and exactly what qualifications one needs to fill those jobs. Without this information, a student interested in becoming a Veterinary Technician may enroll in a four-year Bachelor’s degree program at a private institution (paying more per year than the average salary for a vet tech) when she could have prepared for the same career with a two-year degree from a community college. In addition, students must know where those jobs are; this data must be available not only at the national, but also at the state and local levels. Workforce data of this kind would have been particularly useful for the students I served in a rural school district in Pennsylvania. While the technology industry is growing in the state of Pennsylvania, many of those jobs are located in Pittsburgh, so a student hoping to remain in Centre County after graduation must know that their job market looks different than the statewide trends.
Counselors and students should have direct access to this information. Several states have drafted “Right to Know” legislation which, in addition to mandating the collection of much of this data, also tasks states with sending it directly to school counselors each year. Some leaders also call for the creation of an online data dashboard, where students can directly access and explore this information. Sharing this data with users, in a way that is tailored directly to their needs, is crucial to ensuring that students—and the families and counselors who support them—can use this data to make informed postsecondary choices.
Linking state-level collection of student-level data through P–20W data systems provides the information students and counselors need to make the best decisions for students. Linked data allows for the exploration of outcomes data by a variety of background characteristics and student experiences. This data lets students see how their peers fare in different postsecondary programs and careers. As a counselor, P–20W systems would have helped me link my students’ past experiences with their future outcomes in ways that could have helped me serve them better. If I know that students who got a “C” in Algebra 2 often require math remediation in college, I can point them toward the school’s tutoring center as soon as they arrive on campus. If I know that a particular institution has done an excellent job serving my students with disabilities, I can promote that institution to students who need similar supports on campus. I can also view outcomes by county, district, or school level, so I can know exactly how well my school prepares students for different programs, and I can proactively identify areas where my students may need more support—and help them get it.
Today’s students need this information now more than ever. As the cost of college rises and student debt grows, it is critical that students know whether they are choosing a postsecondary pathway that will yield a good return on their investment. Rapidly advancing technology will increase the need for workers to upskill or reskill throughout their working lives. The national school counselor to student ratio is 430:1, so counselors, who desperately want to help students with these decisions, have limited time to do so. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and rising unemployment, we will likely see more adults returning to education and training to seek employment in new fields; it is critical that these students have the information they need to make good decisions as well. Collecting robust postsecondary and workforce data—and linking it with longitudinal data in state P–20W data systems—will help all students access the information they need to make informed decisions about their future, and will help counselors support them throughout their postsecondary journeys.