Data is Good, But Collecting it is Hard

Commenter Mudge says that collecting employment and wage data from college students, which Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) is hoping becomes the norm, is much easier said than done:

No graduate of any college is required to provide information on their job, or lack thereof, or its remuneration. They are not required to leave an address unless the college cannily only mails out diplomas. Many graduates avoid leaving adresses in order to avoid the incessant fundraising efforts from the college after graduation. Any data gathered is voluntary and more than likely not statistically valid.

My wife is the one at her college tasked with getting the information Wyden would like. The lawmakers have no idea how difficult that is. The unemployment rate on the date of graduation will differ from 6 months later (many students get jobs after graduation) which will differ from a year after. Maybe they could get some information at graduation (no info..no diploma for you) but 6 months or a year later? Maybe not. Will the
government allow colleges to mine the student loan lists for their graduates and their addresses? Privacy issues abound.

It’s a good idea, but if the government wants valid results it might want to think a little bit about some of the data gathering problems.

Totally understand the concern. But I’m having trouble seeing this as a major issue. We’ll never have perfect data, of course — there will always be gaps, and colleges will need to come up with ways to keep tabs on graduates — but once this got established as a norm, once colleges figured out some pretty simple ways to incentivize “phoning home,” as it were, would it really be all that tough to get some decent information about this stuff?

Especially if it is couched as an important part of being a member of that alumni community and improving the experiences of future students, I just don’t see graduates being all that recalcitrant when it comes to releasing some very basic information, especially if they can do so online. Remember that everyone my age and younger seems to have no problem voluntarily posting pictures of themselves playing drinking games in ridiculous costumes on Facebook.

Still, maybe it would take awhile. The best a college can do is make an honest effort to collect information and then offer up whatever it has. If that means there’s a column labeled “Did not respond” and that the number there is much higher than anyone would like at first, so be it. The important thing is to begin establishing that colleges owe it to their consumers to collect and release this sort of information.

What do you guys think? Am I being overly naïve here?

Jesse Singal

Jesse Singal is a former opinion writer for The Boston Globe and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. He is currently a master's student at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Policy. Follow him on Twitter at @jessesingal.