2. What is the student experience? Are the graduates working?
In part 1 of this series, we assessed the importance of determining whether your school/program of choice has a strong reputation with people in the industry. This is only one piece of the puzzle (albeit a very important one!). But what should you do if you are getting mixed reviews from employers in the field? What if some of them are telling you that they prefer their new hires to be trained at a different institution? This scenario is entirely possible. Employers will have differing preferences in where to look when hiring new graduates. This is often driven by previous experience. A company is more likely to hold a positive view of a program if it has hosted practicum placements or offered internships to students with success in the past. Be aware of this potential bias and know that it doesn’t necessarily mean your program isn’t effective. You simply could have gotten unlucky by connecting with an unrepresentative sample of employers (but you should take note if they are ALL telling you they prefer a different program than the one you’re thinking of!).
To fully gauge a program’s effectiveness, you need to take your research a step further by assessing the student experience. Did past students find their training useful? Would they recommend the program to someone else? Having discussions with industry employers ahead of time is critical. But another key consideration to make when deciding on what training to get and where to get it, is to determine what proportion of past graduates were actually able to find work in their chosen field. In other words, is the program adequate in preparing students for post-program employment?
This can be easy or difficult to find out, depending on your school and program of choice. In BC, the provincial government conducts follow-up research with public school students to determine what happened to them after graduating from various programs. The results are published in the BC Student Outcomes survey. In these reports, you can find a wealth of fist-hand feedback from previous students including how long it took them to find a job upon completion, how relevant their training was to getting a job, how difficult the program was and how well prepared they feel for further studies (an important concept we will explore further in part 3 of this series). This will help you get a better sense of what the student experience in the program is actually like. Did the students enjoy the program? Was it a valuable learning experience? What major skills did they develop? Was the quality of instruction adequate? These are all questions the BC Student Outcomes reports can answer. They are also very valuable for comparing post-program employment results for different schools offering certifications in similar areas of study.
For private schools, this task can be a bit more tedious. Many post their outcome statistics right on their websites, but the numbers are usually representative of the whole school (not program-by-program) and the accuracy of them can be suspect. I encourage people to schedule a meeting with an advisor at the private school they are thinking about attending to ask about graduation outcomes. Be sure to dig deeper when they claim X percentage of their graduates are working in their field. Where did those numbers come from? How can I be confident they are accurate? Does the school have strong relationships with local employers? Do student practicums often result in jobs? Being diligent on this front is especially important for private schools because they are private businesses whose primary concern is generating revenue. In some cases, this objective can come at the expense of educational quality. Be cautious if the school streamlines you through the admissions process with little or no pre-screening. This should serve as a red flag that the institution might be more focused on getting people enrolled than helping them find jobs in their field after graduation.
Getting first-hand feedback on the quality of education previous students received in your program/school is just as important as soliciting input from employers in the field. Attending post-secondary studies means sacrificing a year or more of your time. So make sure it will be time well spent. Confirm that those who went through before you were satisfied with the skills they learned and the employment prospects they were exposed to upon completion!