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The baccalaureate degree remains the surest path to economic mobility, employment stability, and a host of associated social benefits. This is true for first-generation students, those who struggle to afford education, and especially for students of color. Yet current and prospective students from all walks and stages of life increasingly question whether a bachelor’s degree will be worth the time, effort, and money.1Strada Education Network, “Confidence in Education’s Promise: Perspectives on Access and Barriers to Good Jobs,” November 12, 2020. https://cci.stradaeducation.org/pv-release-november-12-2020/
Even when we look beyond the chronic challenges to access and degree completion, the payoff is not the same for all graduates or in all programs. Students can see the high costs of education, but a clear and predictable career path is more opaque in an ever-shifting labor market transformed by remote work, gig work, outsourcing, automation, artificial intelligence, and global supply chains.
The pandemic intensified growing pressure for transformational change in higher education as it precipitated unprecedented disruptions to work and learning. At the same time, examination of inequities in education and employment outcomes have also been brought to the forefront. Amidst — and in some measure because of — these shifts, public confidence in the value of credentials and degrees after high school is eroding. In this context, educators and policymakers understand that they need to do everything they can to equitably deliver a valuable, quality experience for today’s learners.
Alumni provide a critical perspective for how to pursue higher education that delivers on the promise that all graduates can secure good jobs, do meaningful work, contribute to their communities, and live fulfilling lives. They are full of insights into what experiences were most important, what skills have proved most essential, what was lacking in their undergraduate experience, and what the full benefits of their education have been.
We created the Strada Alumni Survey to learn directly from alumni about how education has influenced their lives. This survey is a tool to help educators and policymakers better understand how to ensure graduation is a starting line for personal and professional success beyond completion.
The survey asks alumni questions that provide insights into their aspirations, experiences, and postgraduation outcomes. What were they seeking when they enrolled, and what do they believe their education delivered? What aspects of their education were most valuable in their lives after graduation? Which skills did they develop and how are a variety of skills valued in their workplace? This report shares findings from Strada’s 2021 nationally representative benchmark study of more than 3,000 alumni who have graduated since 2001.2Results presented are from the Strada Education Alumni Outcomes national benchmark survey. Data are representative of alumni who earned a bachelor’s degree between 2001 and 2020 with regard to geography, gender, ethnicity, age at graduation, school type, and major. Data were collected via an online survey between March 22 and April 30, 2021, with a total sample size of 3,309.
The survey was designed to help measure the benefits of higher education in ways that will improve current practice and policy to benefit students long after they graduate. We believe many of the same improvements that increase equitable success after completion will also improve access, persistence, and completion.
As we hear from alumni about their experiences during and after college, we can understand what students aspire to beyond completion — and measure how well higher education delivers on these outcomes. This knowledge is critical in our commitment to ensuring that college equitably delivers on its promise of a better future.
Students’ education goals encompass learning, career, and personal growth. More than 9 in 10 alumni reported strong learning outcomes.
At least three-quarters of alumni report they experienced at least one of three postgraduation outcomes: an earnings benefit, feeling their education was worth the cost, or achieving their goals. However, only half realized all three of these outcomes and women, first-generation, and alumni of color were less likely to experience the postgraduation benefits of a college education.
Graduates reported that their professors and courses were very valuable to them, but experiences and support connecting education to career opportunities were much less common and not as uniformly valuable.
After graduation, alumni who reported quality experiences connecting their education to career preparation as students also earned more money and were significantly more likely to agree their education was worth the cost and helped them to achieve their goals.
Alumni who believe they developed in-demand professional skills are more likely to believe their education helped them achieve their goals. This pattern is consistent across all fields of study, from visual and performing arts to accounting and engineering.
Our previous research has revealed that students have three core reasons for pursuing higher education: career, income, and personal goals.3Strada Education Network, “Why Higher Ed?” January 2018. https://cci.stradaeducation.org/report/why-higher-ed/ 4Strada Education Network, “Interested But Not Enrolled: Understanding and Serving Aspiring Adult Learners,” September 16, 2020. https://cci.stradaeducation.org/pv-release-september-16-2020/ Our Alumni Study allowed us to learn more about the extent to which institutions were delivering on those aspirations.
Looking at the percentage of alumni who rated each item as very or extremely important in their decision, the most common motivations were career related: to be able to qualify for good jobs (87 percent), to gain skills to be successful in work (86 percent), and to advance their careers (84 percent). Slightly less prevalent were goals related directly to income: to be able to support myself and my family (82 percent), and to make more money (72 percent). Finally, students also frequently cited personal goals, including: learn new things (84 percent); become the best person I can be (74 percent); and be a good role model (60 percent).
On average, education outcomes exceeded alumni aspirations in areas of personal growth: be a good role model (plus-13 percentage points), learn new things (plus-9 percentage points), and become the best person I can be (plus-4 percentage points). In three of the five career or income objectives, education experiences lagged slightly behind alumni aspirations. Fewer alumni said that their education helped them to qualify for good jobs, advance their careers, and be able to support themselves and their families compared to the number of alumni who aspired to these goals. The pattern suggests that, according to alumni, undergraduate education in America is exceeding expectations for personal growth but falling short on career preparation.
There are large racial disparities in the extent to which alumni say that education fulfilled their aspirations. While Black alumni were more likely than white alumni to say that career-related goals were extremely or very important to them, they were much less likely to say that their education had helped them to achieve these goals. The largest Black-white gaps are in the percentage who said their education helped them to become the best person they can be (10 percentage points lower), advance their career (10 percentage points lower), or support themselves and their family (9 percentage points lower). Such disparities signal that the equity imperative must extend beyond completion of a degree or credential to ensure that all graduates are able to realize the full benefits of education.
A majority of individuals reported a career outcome as the main reason for pursuing more education after high school. At the same time, three-quarters of alumni are motivated by an interest in personal improvement. People don’t pursue higher education just to get a good job, but to gain the tools that allow them to live a more fulfilling life.
There has been growing momentum toward the adoption of value as the new goal for postsecondary education and training. However, financial outcomes are only a partial measure of real value. There is broad agreement that education is about more than money in at least two fundamental ways: Individuals pursue education for both financial and non-financial reasons; and the benefits associated with education are both financial and non-financial in nature. We must also account for measures of learning, career satisfaction, and alumni fulfillment to better determine the quality and value of education and training.
We propose an enriched framework for measuring postsecondary education outcomes that includes three elements:
Most alumni agree they experienced at least one of these positive outcomes from their education: Seventy-five percent of alumni reported an annual income of at least $40,0007Nine percent of alumni declined to give their annual personal income. The 75 percent are among those who responded to the question.; 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 believed they experienced a successful outcome on all three metrics.
Importantly, there are significant variations across schools, fields of study, time since graduation, first-generation students, students of color, and gender, among other categories. The framework points to strengths and shortcomings in how well and how equitably higher education is serving students.
Alumni of color, first generation, and female graduates are all less likely to report favorable outcomes than their counterparts.
Disparities in learner outcomes beyond completion mirror disparities in access and completion.
When combining the three factors in the beyond completion framework for examining outcomes, the disparities are even more stark. 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.
Moreover, 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.
What can colleges do to improve postgraduation outcomes for their students? How can they close equity gaps? Statistical examination identified key undergraduate experiences linked to positive beyond-completion outcomes. Using factor analysis to empirically group the undergraduate experiences that alumni rated for their value, we identified three categories: academics, career connection, and community. Ratings on the items in each of these three factors were averaged to create an index for each category.8Each item was scored on a scale of 0-5: 0=not applicable; 1=not at all valuable; 2=not very valuable; 3=somewhat valuable; 4=very valuable; 5=extremely valuable.
To explore the relationships between undergraduate experiences and outcomes beyond completion, we included these category indices and key demographic items in a series of logistic regression models to assess the strongest predictors of the three beyond completion outcome metrics: feeling that education was worth the cost; feeling that education helped them to achieve their goals; and earning more than $40,000.
Regression models controlling for differences in student characteristics reveal that reporting strong career connection experiences while an undergraduate student was a significant predictor of better outcomes on all three of the beyond completion framework factors. Academics was a predictor of two out of three (worth the cost and achieved goals). Community, or a sense of connectedness to other students and campus life, was positively and significantly related to one outcome (achieved goals).
As an example, the chart below models the expected influence of connection to career on beyond completion outcomes for a first-generation female student of color holding mean-level ratings for academics and community. Going from no career connections to extremely valuable career connections, the student’s predicted likelihood of earning more than $40,000 per year increases by 37 percentage points, their likelihood of believing their education was worth the cost increases by 29 percentage points, and their likelihood of believing their education helped them to achieve their goals increases by 27 percentage points.
In addition, several demographic variables were significant predictors of these outcomes, as summarized in the table below (see appendix for full regression results).
Worth the cost
Achieve my goals
Make more than $40,000
Career connection is the one factor positively associated with all three of the beyond-completion outcomes and, relative to academics, there is significant room for improvement in this domain. The average score (on a 0-to-5 scale) for academics was 3.8, community was 2.9, and career connection was 3.0.
From an alumni perspective, colleges and universities are doing a good job with core academic experiences. Eighty-two percent of alumni said their classes were very or extremely valuable, and 77 percent said the same about their professors. While continuous-improvement efforts will persist and there are variations across campuses and departments, alumni are most consistent in recognizing the value of courses and professors in their undergraduate experience.
But while more than three-quarters of alumni rated their academic experiences positively, only half reported valuable experiences with internships, career and job placement, and career advising. Even fewer had work-study and mentoring experiences, or felt they were valuable. The data tell us that, too often, students either do not have these opportunities or do not have high-quality experiences. The strong, positive predictive relationship between career connection experiences while a student and experiencing all three of the beyond completion outcomes make this set of opportunities a clear priority for improvement.
Another opportunity for colleges and universities to improve alumni outcomes beyond completion is to place a priority on developing and recognizing skills that are valued in the labor market. The 2021 Strada Alumni Survey asked respondents about the degree to which their undergraduate education helped them develop the 11 skills most frequently included in job postings nationwide. They also rated the value of these skills in their current employment.
There is good alignment between the development and the workplace value of the top skills. Alumni rated colleges and universities strongest at helping them develop their ability to learn new things, think critically, and solve problems. Writing is the only skill more alumni agree was well-developed than report it being valuable in the workplace. The greatest gaps between alumni perceptions of skill development and workplace value are found in digital literacy (18 percentage points), teamwork (16 percentage points), verbal communication or speaking (16 percentage points), leadership (15 percentage points), and project management (15 percentage points).
Embedding these valuable skills into a degree program can significantly improve postcompletion outcomes, especially for certain majors. For example, only 62 percent of visual and performing arts majors who did not feel they developed digital literacy skills agree that their education helped them to achieve their goals. But that increased by 25 percentage points when they felt their education helped them develop those skills. Similarly, biology majors who developed digital literacy skills were 25 percentage points more likely to report that their education helped them achieve their goals compared to biology majors who didn’t develop those skills. For business majors, the difference was 23 percentage points.
Data analysis and statistics were another skill associated with better postcompletion outcomes. Again, the majors receiving the biggest boost for these skills were visual and performing arts, biology, and business (34, 32, and 29 percentage points more likely to say their education helped them to achieve their goals, respectively).
When it comes to self-assessment of skill development, the biggest gaps are not racial, but gender based. Women consistently report that they received less skill development than men, particularly for the skills that are associated with bigger boosts in postcompletion outcomes. Women are less likely than men to rate their skills as being developed “a great deal” or “quite a bit” when it comes to project management (minus-18 percentage points), data analysis and statistics (minus-18), digital literacy (minus-15) and math (minus-13). Some of this difference appears to be related to gender differences in fields of study. For example, male alumni made up more than 70 percent of engineering majors and computer science majors in the survey. Yet female and male computer science majors rated their digital literacy skills very similarly, and female and male engineering majors rated the development of their math skills on par with one another.
At the same time, if differences in major completely explained gender differences in skills assessment, we might expect women to rate themselves more highly than men in skills that are related to female-majority majors, like English or visual and performing arts. Yet on average female alumni rate their skill development lower than their male peers for every skill on the survey, including skills such as teamwork, creativity, and writing. This discrepancy merits further exploration into how to better serve female students in both acquiring valuable skills and having confidence in their mastery.
Colleges and universities serve students best when they help students not only to enroll and complete, but also to achieve the goals for personal growth and career success that are so often the prime motivation for seeking a college education. An enriched framework for measuring the success of higher education starts with completion, integrates well-established economic considerations, and includes alumni feedback about whether their education provided value and helped them achieve their goals. By using this framework to examine alumni outcomes beyond completion, we identify strengths, inequities, and promising pathways for progress.
Unfortunately, just as we continue to see disparities in college access and completion, there are also large disparities in outcomes beyond completion, particularly for students of color, first-generation students, and women. This research makes it clear that increased access to, and recognition of, experiences that connect undergraduate education to preparation for career success is a priority. This can be done through work-based learning opportunities such as internships and work-study, career advising, mentoring, and ensuring in-demand skills are embedded in the curriculum. As institutions build on their existing academic strengths while remaining relevant and ensuring students can achieve their stated goals, they will be better able to fully, and equitably, deliver on the full promise of higher education.
Predictors of “Worth the cost”
Predictors of “Helped me achieve my goals”
Predictors of income more than $40,000
*p<0.1, ** p<.05
The list of benefits associated with earning a college degree is extensive and oft-repeated. It includes higher average lifetime earnings, employment security, greater self-esteem, and better health, among many others.
Amid all of this disruption, the number of U.S. workers leaving or changing their jobs sharply increased. Known variously as the Great Resignation, Reshuffle, or Realignment, the trend has been cast in the cultural imagination as a collective desire on the part of the American workforce for more rewarding or meaningful work.
Over the past 80 years, our nation has made great strides in improving access to college, and then ensuring that many more students could complete a college degree.
Spring 2022 enrollment numbers from the National Student Clearinghouse reveal a fifth straight semester of enrollment declines, with more than 1 million fewer students enrolled compared to spring 2020
Higher education’s measurement of student success is in the midst of an evolution. For nearly five decades, success efforts focused on access, then two decades with completion as the horizon for success, and now the focus is extending to student outcomes beyond completion.
Applied connections between education and work are increasingly a part of undergraduate education in the United States.
Two centuries after the first historically Black colleges and universities were founded, the 101 accredited HBCUs in operation today continue to deliver on their legacy of expanding educational opportunity for Black students that leads to successful and fulfilling lives.
As a field, higher education has experienced a continuing evolution in how to measure success. For nearly five decades success efforts were focused on access, followed by the past decade and a half pursuing completion, and the field now has a growing focus on the value of a degree and student outcomes beyond completion.
Strada’s prior research on undergraduate perceptions of the value of their education demonstrates that students value their education most when they receive support to connect their education and career interests.
In the wake of historic pandemic-related enrollment declines, postsecondary institutions have responded by developing and expanding innovative approaches to engaging learners.
The baccalaureate degree remains the surest path to economic mobility, employment stability, and a host of associated social benefits.
Steep declines in undergraduate enrollment during 2020 and 2021 threaten to widen existing equity gaps in college completion and career opportunities.
Nondegree credentials have been growing rapidly for decades. During the COVID-19 economic crisis, interest in nondegree credentials and skills training options was especially high. Questions about their quality and value, however, remain.
The high school classes of 2020 and 2021 have endured massive disruption to their education.
From its onset in early 2020, the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has upended life across the world, leading to uncertainty around health, work, finances, education, and a host of other issues.
The pandemic has led to a national crisis of widespread disruption to both work and education for millions of adults in the U.S., especially those from historically marginalized groups.
We asked alumni nationwide who had borrowed money to go to school if their loans were worth it. Strada Education Network and Gallup surveyed a nationally representative sample of more than 6,000 student loan holders.
Our mission is to improve lives by forging clearer and more purposeful pathways between education and employment.
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