Colleges and universities are under pressure to demonstrate the value of degrees and certificates. Demands for accountability and transparency, by state and federal policy-makers as well as the general public, derive from an array of factors, including concerns about college costs, student indebtedness, and lower than desired completion rates.
At the federal and state levels, legislators and other policymakers have developed measures of outcomes to assess accountability and consumer information to get at the questions of value. These measures tend to focus predominantly on short-term consequences—employment, wages, and earnings—and do not encompass the full range of educational outcomes. Furthermore, the measures exclude some students who attend colleges and universities. There is a need for a framework that will provide a broader perspective and make it easier to more systematically understand, discuss, and measure post-collegiate outcomes.
Inadequate data systems for tracking students’ post-college outcomes hamper reporting efforts. Most institutions and many states maintain student unit record data, but linking data collected on campus and data that captures students’ post-college outcomes is a significant challenge. Dissimilarities in data sets collected by states make it impossible to create the same outcome metrics for all states. National sample surveys, such as the American Community Survey  and the various longitudinal surveys conducted by the Department of Education , provide broad outcomes for groups of students, but the results cannot be associated with individual institutions, making these outcomes less useful for institutional accountability.
In addition, state and federal policy and law restrict federal data collection, limit the use of student unit records and erect barriers to connecting data across governmental boundaries. The result is little common conversation and less agreement about how to improve reporting on students’ outcomes. This lack of a common vocabulary and standards hinders institutions’ ability to inform policymakers and the public, but also our ability to evaluate efforts on our campuses.
In response to these demands, the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), in partnership with the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) collaborated on the Post Collegiate Outcomes initiative, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The goal of the Post-Collegiate Outcomes (PCO) collaborative project was development of a strategic framework to discuss, assemble, and report post-collegiate outcomes, now and in the future.
Working groups comprised of subject matter experts and higher education leaders from two- and four-year institutions were assemble to create a framework and application tools that will enable colleges and universities, policymakers, and the public to better understand and talk about post-collegiate outcomes in areas such as economic well-being, ongoing personal development, and social and civic engagement.