Many colleges like to show their job placement numbers as evidence of their success. But statistics they cite often appear to be wildly, indeed implausibly, good. Check out, for instance, Michigan’s Ferris State University, which boasts in some communications that “Ferris graduates have a 98-percent job placement rate.”

This is in Michigan, a state with an almost 9 percent unemployment rate. Wow, with a 98 percent job placement rate at Ferris State the graduates of the University of Michigan must practically have to fight off job offers, right?

Not really. According to an article by Timothy Sandoval in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

As it happens, the last year for which Ferris State reported a 98-percent job-placement rate was 2005-6, when fewer than half of its graduates responded to the university’s destination survey. Since then, the share of students responding to the survey has dropped, to 22 percent in 2009-10, the most recent year for which figures are available. The university reported a job-placement rate that year of 86 percent, although the older numbers remain online.

Like Ferris State, many colleges release placement rates based on scant information: More than a third of colleges’ reported rates in 2010 were based on responses from half of their graduates or fewer, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers. That raises the question of whether the results are skewed by greater participation among happily employed graduates.

This is almost certainly the case. The trouble is that, while some critics have started to question the job placement numbers touted by, for instance, law schools and for-profit colleges, the rosy job placement numbers used by regular undergraduate institutions (numbers parents certainly consider when helping their children choose colleges) often go unchallenged.

That’s because there’s no standard way to show job placement data.

Some colleges poll students at graduation. Some just send out surveys after graduation and report the employment rate of those who responded. Some follow up with graduates every six months. Some hound students over email to get the latest information.

These tactics yield very different results, but one isn’t necessarily more accurate than another. It’s just that all of these different methods make it virtually impossible to compare career information across school, which is, of course, the reason people ask about job placement in the first place. Which college is better for getting a good job?

Some colleges are trying very hard to come up with useful information. According to the article,

St. Olaf College, in Northfield, Minn., has established perhaps the most comprehensive system to show where its graduates end up. The small liberal-arts college offers on its Web site a searchable database of what almost every member of the Class of 2011 is doing, minus names and other identifying information.

That’s impressive but still essentially useless if one is trying to decide between St. Olaf and nearby Carleton College based on career outcomes. It’s just impossible to create a useful comparison.

There’s not much hope, at least according to the article, that colleges will fix this problem. No one, it appears, deliberately wants to mislead students. It’s just that until schools can agree on what to collect and how to present it, the schools are going to continue to present the information haphazardly.

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Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer