When high school students think about prospective careers, they usually look at salaries, typical workdays and possible employers.
Such things are important, of course. But to realize their dreams, first many must earn a degree or certificate and possibly pass a credentialing exam.
Often, their chances of success in those arenas is less well-known when they select a school to prepare them for their careers.
"I really don't think that they research that coming in," said Ron Logreco, assistant dean for the Community College of Allegheny County's West Hills Center. "I think the students make up their minds based on the appearance, the impression that they get and the cost."
Numbers on graduation rates and passage rates on credentialing exams are mostly -- though not entirely -- accessible, although researching them isn't necessarily easy.
A federal law that took effect last summer makes some information easier to access.
Previously, the federal government tracked graduation rates for schools as a whole. As of July, however, federal regulations began requiring schools with programs that would lead to gainful employment in a recognized occupation to disclose completion numbers for individual programs.
Schools are required to put such information on their websites and in promotional materials. Those numbers also are available on the federal government's College Navigator website, www.collegenavigator.gov.
For the region, graduation rates are all over the map. At Robert Morris University, 61 percent of the first-time, full-time freshmen who entered in 2004 graduated from RMU within six years. At La Roche College, that figure is 41 percent. At Point Park University, it's 48 percent. At the University of Pittsburgh, it's 78 percent. The figures don't include transfer students.
Students might not be accustomed to having so much data at hand.
"I think it's something that's going to take a little bit of time for students and parents to be sophisticated enough to know it's out there and know what it's all about," said Mary Frances Archey, vice president for learning and student development at CCAC.
Some schools provide the public with far more data than required by the government.
CCAC, for example, posts on the Internet the passage rates for every class offered under the Program & Discipline Review Data tab in the Research & Reports section of its website.
Prospective students can find out, for example, that 50 percent of students passed Cost Accounting last semester, while 99.52 percent passed Dimensions in Nursing.
When Adam Jumblat, 23, was choosing which program to attend for heating and air conditioning technology, he looked into graduation rates. Because rates were generally fairly high, it was something that advisers stressed during tours.
For Mr. Jumblat, of Beechview, money and the program's reputation were the deciding factors.
"I looked at one number -- $32,000," he said, referencing the tuition at one of the schools he chose not to attend. "Compared to what I'm going to be paying at CCAC, that's huge."
For students interested in the trades, as well as fields such as nursing, teaching, accounting and many others, it's not just graduation rates that are important but success rates on credentialing exams.
In a field such as welding, for example, certification from the American Welding Society is "really crucial, almost more important than the associate degree itself," said Gretchen Mullin-Sawicki, CCAC's dean in charge of engineering and the applied trades.
At Pittsburgh Job Corps, an intensive program for low-income teens and young adults, credentialing exams are required in programs ranging from culinary arts to heavy equipment operators.
"We really emphasize the credentialing," said Dottie Sweeney, business community liaison for the Pittsburgh Job Corps Center. "They know this is what the employers are looking for if you want to be employed. This is part of the program; this is what you have to do."
For some fields, such as nursing, passage rates on credentialing tests are available from the state, broken down by school -- although finding the table on the Department of State's website takes some digging.
The chart shows passage rates on the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses for first-time test takers at local universities ranging from 78.1 percent at Carlow University to 100 percent at Waynesburg University. At Duquesne's nursing school, 81.6 percent passed in the most recent administration; 92.1 percent did so at Pitt's nursing school and 82.4 percent at CCAC.
Waynesburg is using its 100 percent passage rate -- which it has maintained for four years in a row -- in marketing materials for the school, including billboards.
"When prospective students and their parents attend visitation days at Waynesburg University, they frequently ask questions related to graduation rates and NCLEX pass rates," said Nancy Mosser, chairwoman of Waynesburg's Department of Nursing.
Ms. Mosser believes that pass rates are "significant indicators of program effectiveness" and therefore should be important to prospective students.
On the contrary, for the trades at the CCAC West Hills campus, Mr. Logreco is fairly certain that incoming students don't have comparison figures for success rates on certification exams across different schools. More importantly, neither does he.
"Some of these industries don't have benchmarks that we've been able to find," he said. "We track our own certifications, but we'd like to know how those compare to others."
Take welding, for example. CCAC is proud of its 94 percent passage rate on the certification exam -- especially with increased numbers of students taking pipe welding classes to prepare for Marcellus Shale jobs -- but it doesn't know how other schools are doing.
The state doesn't track passage rates by school on the welding exam and neither does the American Welding Society, which administers the test.
One of the toughest exams for the trades is automotive certification, which 79 percent of CCAC students passed at the last administration.
Matthew Styen, 33, did a lot of research before choosing CCAC for automotive technology. But he focused on the cost of the programs and the opportunity that CCAC gave him through a co-op with General Motors dealers.
"I really wasn't looking at the graduation rates," he said. "I was going by what I know, what I've heard, what people from the actual car dealerships were saying."
Mr. Styen, of Squirrel Hill, loves the CCAC program and is thrilled to be able to work at a Cochran dealership while he's still in school.
Even now that he knows of the 79 percent passage rate on the automotive certification exam, he's not daunted in the slightest.
"People who come to class know that there are people who are going to fail -- they're basically here because their parents told them they needed to do something," he said.
"If you actually do the work that's assigned to you, you will know everything you need to know and retain it."
Anya Sostek: email@example.com or 412-263-1308. First Published February 16, 2012 5:00 AM