KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Thousands of Western Michigan University seniors are hurtling toward May 2 graduation with the knowledge that last year's WMU graduates saw an 89 percent rate of success within just three months of commencement.
A five-year-old effort to track the postgraduate activities of WMU alumni has emerged as what is believed to be the most comprehensive documentation of life after graduation for students at any Michigan university. The annual survey garnered responses from more than two-thirds of 2013-14 WMU graduates, and a similar survey process is already underway for 2014-15 grads.
Most alumni actively engaged
The core finding for 2013-14 was that 89.1 percent of graduates were "actively engaged" in the next steps of their professional development within three months of graduation. Active engagement is defined as full-time employment (62.5 percent), attendance in graduate school (14.6 percent), part-time employment (11 percent) or military service (1 percent). For those employed full time, 81 percent were employed in jobs related to their academic discipline, and the median salary was in the $45,000 to $50,000 range.
"I'm very proud of the effort that has gone into documenting how successful our new graduates are," says WMU President John M. Dunn. "One of the great myths that has captured the public dialogue in recent years is that college graduates can't find jobs or are relegated to trying to get by on jobs that don't allow them to use the skills they've developed in college. We can show that a college degree significantly enhances their prospects."
Career and graduate school placement measures are important and reflect information that incoming students and their families want to know, Dunn notes. But the value of higher education goes even beyond those measures.
"We need to keep reminding families that we're happy to provide them with very specific information like this, but the most significant outcomes are our students' abilities to experience personal and professional growth—success—that occurs over a lifetime because of the broad-based education they receive at our University."
The WMU survey is the product of five years of work by Dr. Ewa Urban, associate director for assessment and technology in WMU's Career and Student Employment Services. Starting with responses from just 25 percent of graduates in 2009-10, she has built a survey and outreach program that last year netted responses from 68.5 percent of graduates—3,590 of the more than 5,200 students who earned bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees in 2013-14. Working with Amy Galick, who is a graduate assistant working on a master's degree in applied mathematics, Urban says they were able to make the most recently completed report the most thorough to date.
Other key findings
In addition to active engagement and salaries, the survey results showcase a wealth of additional important information. Findings from the 2013-14 assessment include:
- WMU grads found employment in 41 states, but the majority—74 percent—stayed in Michigan.
- Internships play a critical role in postgraduate employment. Just over 68 percent of WMU grads completed an internship or other experiential opportunity while in school, and 20 percent were hired by the organization in which they interned.
- Thirty-five percent of alumni were employed after graduation by their pre-graduation employer.
- Those continuing their education were enrolled at more than 100 graduate schools around the world, ranging from Harvard and the Boston Conservancy to University College London and the University of Australia, Melbourne.
The comprehensive information is available online. It is broken out by college and major within college and by degree level. Each category includes detailed information on active engagement and salary as well as a sample of the companies, agencies, organizations or school districts in which graduates within those majors are now employed.
"Current and prospective students or any interested person can go online and get the postgraduate information about every major and every degree offered—graduate and undergraduate," Urban says. The data can be found at wmich.edu/career/planning/reports.
A prospective student could look up political science, for instance, and find that 89 percent of last year's bachelor's degree graduates were actively engaged and working in such positions as field director for a congressional office, legal assistant for a law firm or IT specialist for a craft brewer. The median starting salary range in the discipline was in the $40,000 to $45,000 range.
A student looking into an aerospace engineering degree would find a 91 percent engagement rate, median salary of $50,000 to $60,000 and such recent placements as a thermal performance engineer with Nissan or providing production support for Cessna.
Aiming to increase response rates
Over the years, Urban says, the primary aims of the survey have been to get higher response rates and better data. Graduates from August and December have already responded to the current year's surveys at a rate ahead of last year's responses. Urban's goal is to have a 70-plus percent response rate this year. About 80 percent of the data in her report is gleaned from an email survey, and Urban works with departments across campus to continually refine the questions posed.
Graduates, for instance, often prefer not to communicate their specific salaries, but are responsive to questions about salary range. For last year's grads, Urban refined an earlier salary question and offered survey respondents the opportunity to select a salary range rather than divulge their exact salary. She was able to determine the median salary range for WMU graduates was $45,000 to $50,000, and found that more than 6.5 percent of grads had salaries in excess of $80,000.
Urban also gets input on where graduates land from faculty, chairs and deans, and she even uses social media like LinkedIn to round out information. The results of all that effort, she says, are data consistent and useful to academic departments for planning purposes.
"Collaboration helps us all," notes Urban. "Greater efforts to gather input makes people more aware of what we're doing and builds our credibility. Greater transparency and consistency help as well, so we're making every effort to share the data widely."
Dunn began sharing the information with West Michigan audiences earlier this year—focusing, in addition to the success rate, on another of the popular myths about higher education. The WMU numbers, he says, strongly refute the idea that students should focus only on technical disciplines.
"WMU offers more than 250 degree programs, and while we are indeed tracking extraordinary success for graduates of our engineering, business and health care disciplines," notes Dunn, "we also have high engagement rates in fields such as philosophy, geography and communication. We will continue to encourage our students to find success by pursuing their passions as they determine a major and career path."
For more news, arts and events, visit wmich.edu/news.