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I have felt uneasy about students’ decisions to enroll in particular programs ever since I found out years ago that the high “placement” rates (usually near, at, or over 90%) I hear technical colleges pound their chests about include almost everything but former students’ funerals. First, before going into what the high numbers being thrown around by colleges include, let’s talk terms being used.

Although I’ve seen the state throw “placement” around elsewhere, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board doesn’t use the word “placement” in its online institutional resumes for public colleges. It uses the more accurate term “employment” and other words for categories (e.g., “enrolled”) its statisticians use to fatten up college stats. Only colleges use the word “placement,” which creates a certain impression in the minds of those who hear it. “Placement” implies an active role for colleges in helping all students included in the percentage being bandied about to find jobs, but colleges gloss over the actual meaning of placement. They take credit for students’ finding jobs with or without their help.  All students have to do is show up in the Texas Workforce Commission’s Unemployment Insurance Database (or some federal databases Texas monitors) as having found “a” job. (Not necessarily one in the field studied–just “a” job.)

So how do Little Johnny and his parents get this impression of high placement? How about this statement on the TSTC System site?

Jobs, Jobs, Jobs! On average, industry has more job openings than TSTC has graduates. TSTC boasts placement rates of more than 90 percent (based on departmental job placement activities).

Then there’s this bit of info credited to a TSTC representative in the Abilene Reporter-News:

Abilene students placed 94.2 percent and Sweetwater placed 96.6 percent of spring 2012 Texas State Technical College West Texas graduates with jobs in their field of study, Public Relations Director Julie Cromeens said. At the Abilene campus, the emergency medical technology and the computer aided drafting programs each had 100 percent job placement in their fields.

Now let’s take a look at a TSTC West Texas report that visitors can download (you can’t just click on a link and see it; you have to download it) from the TSTC West Texas website. (FYI, I am impressed that TSTC West Texas actually posts this report. Not too many people know what all those program abbreviations are, which makes it hard to interpret, and info seekers have to perform an extra step or two to get the report, but it’s there. I’ve not found anything like it on other colleges’ sites.) Click on the images to enlarge them.

TSTC West Texas Employment Related Graduate Placement Report 12-SP 12-SU 12-FA 130928

TSTC West Texas Employment Related Graduate Placement Report 12-SP 12-SU 12-FA p2 130928

Now go to the top of the first page of the report and take a HARD look at that 91.7% overall placement rate and what goes into it: employment related to the program of study, unrelated employment (you bet they were placed), UNKNOWN (OMG!) employment (you bet they were “placed”), students who go into the military (you bet they were placed), and students who go to another college (you bet they were placed).

Next take a look at the 71% statistic for those who found jobs in their fields of study at TSTC West Texas. Oddly, I’ve never heard anyone beating their chests over this 71% number.

Now here’s a question I want to pose to my visitors: When potential students and their families hear 90%+ numbers, do they think, “Oh, that includes unrelated employment, military, unknown jobs & stuff, and those who transfer to another school”? What do you think? Yeah, me too.

Please allow me to pose a few more questions: Do public technical colleges in Texas inform students about their prospective program-related employment performance during the registration process? Do you think students and their families have the right to make an informed decision, one that’s liable to involve the next year or two of their lives? Yeah, me too.

Another question or two: Should Texas public colleges get away with calling former students “placed” when they join the military, go to another college, get an unknown job or take a job unrelated to what they studied? What do you think? Yeah, me too.

Four final questions: Is this all-inclusive “placement” we keep hearing thrown around so much about students‘ welfare or the institutions’ welfare and the big shots who run them? Aren’t colleges constantly saying they are student-centered? Are those claims of inflated placement rates student-centered? What do you think?

Yeah, me too.