Many businesses measure customer satisfaction by talking to their customers.
But when Brandon Busteed asked US university presidents what they did to discover what their students gained from a higher education, they mostly shrugged.
“No one has gone out and tried to do what seems to be the most important thing, which is to ask these graduates how they’re doing,” said Mr Busteed, executive director of the education practice of the international polling company Gallup.
The firm has just begun an ambitious, first-ever project to survey US university graduates about their success and happiness.
About 30,000 people will be asked questions to determine whether – and, if so, how – their university studies improved their lots in life. “No one is as much of an expert on their lives as they are,” Mr Busteed said.
Individual universities will then be invited to poll their own alumni and see how they compare with the national results. Mr Busteed said that several have already signed up, but declined to name them. Only one, Purdue University, has been publicly identified.
“We hope this will add a layer of meaning [about universities] that has been absent so far,” said A. Dale Whittaker, vice-provost for undergraduate academic affairs at Purdue. “We’re hoping a lot of other people will do the same thing and step up with us.”
Purdue plans to make the results of the poll public, Dr Whittaker said, although other universities that participate are not obligated to disclose them.
Gallup is considering conducting similar surveys internationally. Mr Busteed said it has already been approached by some European universities.
“All these things apply to universities around the world just as much as they do in the US,” he explained. “It’s a fundamental question I hear all round the world: ‘What’s the value of college, and what’s the best way to measure it?’ ”
In the US, the initiative comes amid a spirited debate about how to quantify the merit of a university experience. In addition to rankings produced by private organisations, President Barack Obama has proposed a system under which the federal government would rate institutions based on measures such as their cost and average student loan and graduation rates.
It is an idea that is being vehemently resisted by universities as an intrusion on their independence that is likely to disproportionally harm universities serving the lowest-income students and taking a chance on those most at risk of dropping out. Critics also point out that the data collected by the federal government, and on which the ratings would be based, are far too vague, although this is largely because they have previously blocked attempts to make it more useful by tracking individual students through the system and forced analysts to extrapolate such things as graduation rates in less reliable ways.
Polling graduates is a way to circumvent these issues and avoid depending on the data, Mr Busteed claimed.
“We’re going right to the horse’s mouth,” he said. “This will be a totally unique contribution to the landscape. It is going to be a gold-standard representative study of college graduates in the US.”
And the first of its kind. “It’s hard to believe it, but it’s true,” Mr Busteed affirmed.
The first challenge for Gallup was to choose what to measure. It decided to look primarily at well-being and work engagement, under which come categories such as purpose, social life, and physical and financial health.
“Our financial well-being measures are less about how much money you make, and more about your relationship with money,” Mr Busteed said.
Previous surveys have found that it is not necessarily how much money people make that makes them happy, but how they spend it. Those who spend their money on experiences, for instance, are more satisfied than those who spend it on things.
As an international polling firm, “we’ve already asked these kinds of key questions all over the world”, making it possible to take this project global, Mr Busteed declared.
“We already know what those data look like in France, England, Turkey and Germany,” he said. “In many ways, they’re universal benchmarks.”