Nationwide alumni survey looks beyond completion to understand experience, benefits of a college degree

Courses, faculty receive high marks, but valued education-career connections are less consistent, and females, first-generation, Black alumni are less likely to report successful outcomes

INDIANAPOLIS — Oct. 27, 2021 —  Strada Education Network, a nonprofit social impact organization dedicated to improving lives by forging pathways between education and employment, has released new findings from its nationally representative 2021 Strada Alumni Survey, which shows that 9 in 10 alumni who completed a higher education program reported strong learning outcomes.

However, the results indicated that the system has not benefited all alumni equally. Females, first-generation students, and alumni of color were less likely to experience the postgraduation benefits of a college education: earning more money, finding their education to be worth the cost, and achieving their goals.

“Since the start of the pandemic we’ve seen current and prospective students of all ages and backgrounds increasingly question whether a bachelor’s degree is worth the cost. However, it’s a different sentiment for those who have completed a degree as three-quarters of those graduates agree it was worth the cost,” Strada Senior Vice President of research Dave Clayton said. “Our findings show that those successful outcomes aren’t being experienced equitably, leaving work to be done to better serve all students.”

Through its program of research, and in dialogue with institutional leaders, Strada identified a framework for measuring successful education outcomes that extend beyond access and completion. This framework centers on three elements: an income of more than $40,000; alumni’s agreement that their education was worth the cost; and belief that education helped them meet their goals.

Most alumni agreed they experienced at least one of those positive outcomes: Seventy-five percent of alumni reported having an annual income of at least $40,000; 75 percent said their education was worth the cost; and 80 percent said their education helped them to achieve their goals. However, only 52 percent of alumni reported experiencing successful outcomes on all three metrics.

Using this framework, disparities appear when the data is broken down by race, gender, and family education experience. Across all three metrics, alumni of color, women, and first-generation students trail their peers who are white, male, or have college-educated parents. Disparities are even more stark when measuring success in the combined metrics: Alumni of color are 15 percentage points less likely than white alumni to experience all three successful outcomes; first-generation alumni are 18 percentage points less likely than alumni with college-educated parents; and female alumni are 25 percentage points less likely than male alumni to experience all three outcomes.

The findings among alumni of color are driven by the large disparity in outcomes for Black alumni, who are 27 percentage points less likely than white alumni to report achieving all three outcomes.

“There are areas, particularly with certain groups of learners, where higher education isn’t delivering on its promise of providing equitable opportunities for good jobs, meaningful work, and fulfilling lives,” said Nichole Torpey-Saboe, a director of research at Strada. “But the alumni responses have also provided us with a map for how to improve those outcomes. We’re seeing strong, predictive relationships between certain experiences alumni had and their outcomes in all three of our beyond completion metrics. And that can inform how institutions focus their priorities.”

Two areas the report pointed to as leading to more successful outcomes include recognizing and prioritizing the development of skills that are valued in the labor market and improving connections between college and careers. The report indicates that, too often, alumni either did not have opportunities for internships, job placement, or career advising, or they did not have high-quality experiences. But when they did, data show a strong connection between those experiences as a student and a positive outcome in all three beyond completion metrics.

Similar connections are seen in skill development: When alumni feel they developed skills in their education program that proved to be valuable in the workplace — such as digital literacy, project management, and verbal communication — they showed a double-digit increase in reporting that they achieved their goals compared to alumni who did not feel they developed those skills.    

“It’s clear that colleges and universities serve their students best when they help them not only enroll and complete their education, but also help them achieve the goals that led them to seek a higher education program in the first place,” Clayton said. “We think this data makes clear that institutions will benefit their students as they prioritize providing experiences that connect learning with careers and prepare graduates for success beyond completion.”

The report shares findings from Strada’s nationally representative benchmark study of more than 3,000 alumni who have graduated since 2001. It was designed to help measure the benefits of higher education in ways that can improve current practice and policy and ensure that college equitably delivers on its promise of a better future.

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About Strada Education Network

Strada Education Network is a new kind of nonprofit social impact organization, dedicated to increasing individuals’ economic mobility through purposeful connections between education and employment. Our approach combines innovative research, thought leadership, strategic philanthropy and investments, and support for a network of nonprofits. Together, we work to better serve the millions of Americans seeking to complete postsecondary education and training, gain clear value from those experiences, and build meaningful careers. Learn more at stradaeducation.org.

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