Many of the roughly 20 million students enrolled in postsecondary education hope a degree or certificate will advance them to the next step.
However, when applying to a school, many may have little idea how students fared after graduation and what role the institution played in their success.
What they do know is that times are tough. An unsteady job market means a school's career help is more important than ever.
Before even enrolling, Edwin Koch, director of strategic and foundation research for the National Association of Colleges and Employers, recommends checking school job placement data.
Many schools publish statistics that reveal how many graduates are employed, in graduate school, in the military, still looking for work, volunteering or not seeking a job.
The best career services centers reach out early and often while students are in school.
Some institutions provide lifelong networking resources and a job database to alumni.
"I would say that if they work really hard to look for a job and follow our suggestions and use our resources, then there is a really great chance they'll find a job," said Lisa Dickter, associate director of the Career and Professional Development Center at Carnegie Mellon University.
Few schools gather data the same way, which can make it tough to compare stats.
Some schools survey graduates at three months, others at six months and some after a year. Some consider an internship employment; others classify it as a temporary gig in another category entirely. Some aren't clear that "employed" graduates, while full-time, may not always be working in a field related to what they studied. Some receive more responses from alumni than others.
NACE will meet with some schools this year to discuss creating uniform standards to collect outcome statistics.
Carnegie Mellon University collects data from grads about three months after graduation, said Ms. Dickter.
Of the 1,265 undergraduate CMU alumni surveyed last year, 96 percent responded.
The results showed 47 percent marked employed, 30 percent indicated they planned to go to graduate school, 12 percent were still looking for work, 6 percent marked other -- which can include military or volunteer service -- and 4 percent did not respond.
"There is some gray," Ms. Dickter said of measuring gainful employment. "As much as possible, we put 'employed' when they're employed very close to their field."
She counts a graduate working in an unrelated field but still looking for a better job as "seeking" but one with an internship likely to turn into a job as "employed."
Robert Morris University career counselors mail a survey to each alumnus one year after graduation and follow up by phone, said Kishma DeCastro-Sallis, director of the PPG Industries Career and Leadership Development Center.
Two years ago, they also began gathering job data on graduates' LinkedIn pages, a social networking website for professionals.
"We feel like after a year alums are established with a job," Ms. DeCastro-Sallis said.
For the Robert Morris Class of 2010, about 61 percent of 1,149 alumni surveyed responded.
Of those who returned questionnaires, 87 percent were employed, 8 percent were pursuing higher education and 5 percent were still looking for work. Robert Morris doesn't count internships as employment.
Robert Morris counselors found about 80 percent of those employed were in a job related to what they had studied.
For the University of Pittsburgh Class of 2010, 3,849 graduates were surveyed six months after graduation and 1,532 responded, about 40 percent.
Students can complete an online questionnaire, but the career development team prides itself on calling all 3,849 graduates for roughly 10- to 15-minute phone surveys, said Barb Juliussen, associate director at Pitt's Career Development Office.
A graphic on Pitt's Office of Student Employment and Placement Assistance website shows 47 percent of 2010 graduates who responded to the survey were employed; 31 percent were continuing their education; 10 percent were seeking employment; 6 percent planned to continue education at some point; 3 percent weren't seeking employment; 2 percent were volunteering; and 1 percent planned for military service.
Pitt graduates who are marked employed are working full-time, but they are not necessarily employed in a job related to what they studied, said Cheryl Finlay, Pitt Career Development Office director.
All three schools offer career center mainstays such as resume reviews, mock interviewsand career fairs.
Pitt career counselors email accepted students the summer before the first semester and again when they arrive. From the start, students begin to assess their values, skills and identity, Ms. Juliussen said.
Pitt also offers the Outside the Classroom Curriculum, a voluntary program to help students develop skills employers have told Pitt they're looking for in hires, including leadership and global and cultural awareness.
Robert Morris hosts 200 or more employers at career fairs during an academic year and last year started its first networking event for minorities, Ms. DeCastro-Sallis said.
Carnegie Mellon helps students learn how to reach out to alumni via email. Counselors email students "a lot and often," Ms. Dickter said, which university officials think is one reason for the successful return rate on post-grad surveys.
Some Carnegie Mellon grads will be hearing from their alma mater again. Six months after May commencement, career counselors again contact graduates who marked "seeking" or didn't respond to the first query.
All three schools share lifelong resources with their alumni, including networking and access to job postings. Pitt is considering an initiative to offer boot camps a year out if graduates need further help landing work.
Molly Born: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1944. First Published February 16, 2012 5:00 AM