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California Association of Private Postsecondary Schools

The New Rankings?

08/16/2014

Inside Higher Ed. August 14, 2014 By Charlie Tyson.

Who majored in Slovak language and literature? At least 14 IBM employees, according to LinkedIn.

Late last month LinkedIn unveiled a “field of study explorer.” Enter a field of study – even one as obscure in the U.S. as Slovak – and you’ll see which companies Slovak majors on LinkedIn work for, which fields they work in and where they went to college. You can also search by college, by industry and by location. You can winnow down, if you desire, to find the employee who majored in Slovak at the Open University and worked in Britain after graduation.

LinkedIn's data set is incomplete, of course. You only see results for LinkedIn members. (It’s uncertain whether IBM truly employs more Slovak majors than any other company. Perhaps it just employs more Slovak majors with LinkedIn profiles.) Nonetheless, LinkedIn’s service fills a need for prospective students and their parents, says Jeff Schiffman, Tulane University’s senior associate director of admission. The prospective student who wants to major in, say, studio art at Tulane can see what career paths similar-minded alumni have taken.

“They’re not necessarily looking for a point of contact, because they’re 17,” Schiffman said. “But they just want to know that the possibility is there. They want to see a success story.” 

Such services may have particular value for students trying to convince parents that majoring in a liberal arts field does not doom one to a lifetime of work as a barista. A search for English majors, for instance, turns up many well-employed people, filling the ranks of such companies as Hewlett-Packard, Apple and Microsoft. 

LinkedIn is one of several players in a growing market: the business of aggregating data about career outcomes for prospective college students. Rankings still dominate conversations about which colleges are best, to the chagrin of many college presidents. But a number of companies are developing data-backed search tools to help students decide where to apply, where to attend and what to study.

Students and parents are the consumers most of these companies have in mind. But the services also attract business from colleges and universities that the aggregated data depicts favorably. Tulane now features its LinkedIn page in its promotional materials, Schiffman said.

The aftershocks of the financial crisis, coupled with climbing college costs, have left many prospective students uneasy about college – and their parents even more so. “In 20 years of being involved in the pre-college and college arena, I’ve never seen more parents focused on ROI [return on investment],” said Pat O’Brien, the author of Making College Count.

Eager to make sure college is “a good investment,” parents and students are “desperate for information,” O’Brien said. But they don’t know where to go. “To a large extent they default to college rankings,” he said. “While people in the college world are fed up with rankings, I don’t think the general consumer understands that or feels that way. [Rankings are] the only go-to.”

Rankings, however, have their limitations. “Stanford’s not the best school for everybody,” said Jillian Youngblood, director of community relations for Noodle.com, an education search engine that draws on federal data, student reviews and college rankings to provide guidance for prospective students. John Katzman, the creator of the Princeton Review, founded Noodle in 2010.

Noodle, Youngblood said, aims to be “the most comprehensive search engine for education at every level” – from preschool to graduate school. The site, which launched a revamped set of services last week, pools data from across the web to provide a wide-ranging glimpse of institutions. Search for Harvard, for instance, and you’ll see not only its graduation rates and financial aid breakdown, but also a Q&A section, a listing of how the institution fares on various rankings, and advice from the site’s community of “experts,” many of whom are freelance writers, admissions counselors or Noodle employees.

“The internet’s really bad at helping you make decisions about your education … there’s great advice all over the internet, [but] you have to track it down,” Youngblood said. “If I want to book a hotel in Bangkok, I’m going to go to TripAdvisor. But there are people who actually do Google, ‘What’s the best place to get a nursing degree?’”

Those hapless education-seekers typically get fed into lead-generation sites, from which colleges buy student data, she said.

“You put in your information … [and] no one is guiding you,” Youngblood said. “You get a list of maybe six nursing schools. They’re probably all for-profits; they’re probably all terrible. And if you’re low-information enough to start your search that way, there’s a good chance you’re going to get fed into one of these crappy colleges.”

Noodle.com compiles existing data. LinkedIn, on the other hand, has long asked users for their education history and employment information – unintentionally developing a career-outcomes database in the process.

Burning Glass, a Boston-based labor analytics firm, is another player in the market. The company parses tens of millions of resumes and online job listings using statistical language processing technology. The text-mining algorithms help determine where jobs are oversupplied and where they are undersupplied. For example, the company has seen an increased demand for positions with the word “analyst” in the title, Matthew Sigelman, the firm’s chief executive, told The New England Journal of Higher Education. (The development reflects the increasing popularity of analytics – a shift not confined to the college-prep industry.)

“If institutions are offering programs in areas that do not align with demand in the job market, graduates will have difficulty finding jobs,” Sigelman told the journal. “Conversely, there are ways to identify new job market opportunities and align programming with those opportunities.”

College Measures, another data tool, measures college performance by drawing on student retention data, money spent per student and other metric. The site also works with six states to measure the economic success of graduates. And PayScale collects data from employers to develop a list of which majors pay most.

These websites may offer a wider and more evidence-based glimpse at higher education than many of the popular college rankings. Yet as with every new assessment system, there are winners and losers.

“The risk with LinkedIn is that it definitely has a strong business focus,” O’Brien said. “So I think schools that send a lot of students into business or into technical fields … have potential to be winners.” Despite LinkedIn’s penetration of the professional market, some professions – elementary school teachers, social workers – tend to enter the site in smaller numbers.

And while LinkedIn’s feature shows liberal arts majors get jobs, some college-prep experts worry that the focus on job-getting might concede a larger battle about higher education’s purpose. Patrick O’Connor, a former president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, said that while “there’s more to college than just a job,” in light of parental anxieties about college costs tools like LinkedIn’s application “could be the best way to get students in the door.”

“When you can use the internet to reach out to a student that feels disenfranchised in the college process … that’s what’s really exciting about these websites to me,” he said.