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WASHINGTON, DC – In a new attempt to judge the value of a higher education against which any campus can measure itself, the Gallup research organization will poll graduates nationwide about their success and happiness.

The survey, which will begin this week, will ask 30,000 graduates of four-year universities questions that can help determine whether or not their educations improved their lots in life, something Gallup Education executive director Brandon Busteed said campus leaders say is the primary mission of their increasingly expensive institutions, but which they have few existing means of gauging.

College graduates' outcomes

“They don’t know,” Busteed told the annual meeting of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. “They don’t know.”

The national survey will question graduates about their careers, incomes, social lives, and other things. It will be able to track college graduates’ happiness based on their race and major and whether or not they transferred or went to public or private institutions and in which state or athletic conference.

What it won’t do is break down the answers by institution. Instead, colleges can opt to work with Gallup on compatible surveys of their own alumni and use those to compare themselves with national outcomes.

Only one of the schools that will be doing this has been identified: Purdue University, which Busteed said intends to make the results available publicly, including to prospective students and their parents. He said other institutions have also signed on, but declined to name them. And while the national survey results will be publicly available, individual institutions that participate will not be obligated to disclose what they find.

The initiative is the latest in a crowded field of new ratings and rankings by media companies and universities themselves. The White House has also proposed a federal government rating of institutions based on such things as graduation and student-loan default rates, cost, and average debt. That idea is the subject of ongoing hearings organized by the U.S. Department of Education.

Many existing measures use such things as grade-point averages and entrance-exam scores of incoming students to gauge the comparative quality of schools, rather than their success in life after they graduate.

“The measures that we have today … are grossly insufficient,” Busteed said.

He said the primary goal of the Gallup survey is to help campus leaders—at a time when he said other polling shows Americans are starting to question the quality of a college degree—to determine what aspects of their educations have been most effective.

“You see how it changes everything for how leaders lead institutions,” Busteed said.

Other influences in addition to a college education could influence a graduate’s success and happiness, such as his or her upbringing, Busteed conceded.

“We’re not suggesting that college is responsible for 100 percent of the variance in life happiness,” he told assembled higher-education leaders. “But if it doesn’t contribute to some of these outcomes, what are we doing?”

The results of the national survey are expected in early May.

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