Over the last year or so, LinkedIn has been rolling out several initiatives tailored towards getting more high school and college students to engage with the social networking site. And, finally, it seems like these tools are catching on. One of the most interesting features aimed at this demographic is the University Finder. This is a tool which allows students (and parents) to research potential colleges based on their intended majors, dream employer and location. Additionally, LinkedIn has entered the rankings realm with its University Rankings, a system that shows which colleges’ graduates move on to certain desirable jobs.
In the past, a savvy student might check in with the career center on a college tour to learn more about internships and post-graduation employment and outcomes. The great recession brought the issue of youth unemployment and underemployment to the forefront, so now colleges are more up front about graduation outcomes and salaries in their marketing pieces. However, the information colleges are able to collect is limited. The data set available via LinkedIn is far superior to anything a university is able to collect on its own graduates. Alumni rarely respond to any university surveys regarding their career paths, salaries, graduate school plans, etc. so tracking these outcomes has long been a challenge for career centers. But with a database of 360+ million users, LinkedIn has proven to be a rich source of information ripe for big data analysis.
Another positive aspect of these tools is that it can more clearly demonstrate how well-connected (or not) a university is within its community. The general assumption is that students who study in a certain city are likely to graduate and continue working in the area with local companies. For students who are particularly excited about living in a certain part of the country, this feature highlights which colleges best prepare students for careers in that location or with specific local companies. In a city like Boston with more than 50 colleges and universities to choose from, this data can help differentiate between colleges for students with specific career goals.
However, not all aspects of this search feature are positive. As with most college rankings and lists out there, data obviously reflects more positively on larger colleges with more graduates. Results in the University Finder search are ordered from most graduates to fewest, so larger schools (including for-profits like University of Phoenix) are often at the top of the list. An alternative way for LinkedIn to present this information would be by including the percentages of alumni working for a certain employer. This would more accurately reflect just how closely tied the institution is to the employer and would give small liberal arts colleges and specialized universities a chance at showing up in the search results.
And of course there is the issue of selection bias, the fact that only the alumni who choose to create a LinkedIn profile will be included in the analysis. This likely skews positively for universities, as the more successful (and generally the employed alumni) will create an account in the first place. This is probably no different that the results from good old fashioned career center surveys, but it is happening on a larger scale.
On the student experience end, researching a college based on what a student thinks he/she wants to do upon graduation is very problematic. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 80% of college students change their intended majors at least once during their schooling. Therefore, using intended majors and career outcomes to do research as a 17-year old high school student may not be the best approach in the context of the U.S. higher education system.
Reversing the college search to focus on ROI and career outcomes also takes away some of the fun of the college research process. The research phase is a time for a student to reflect inwardly on her personality traits, academic interests, the type of social life she is seeking, and extracurricular opportunities. Using numbers and outcomes to make college decisions could be a good strategy for a student who truly has a deep and long-standing passion for a certain academic field and has specific career goals. But, for the average student with a more vague sense of interests, they should use the new features in tandem with other more traditional college research, including online research, informational interviews and the traditional campus tour.