The Challenge of Measuring ROI and What Higher Education Can Do About It.

Dr. Kimberly Yousey-Elsener

Senior Manager of Career Research & Data

The Career Leadership Collective



A quick scan of internet searches on College Return on Investment (ROI) makes it clear that society and higher education are trying to understand the worth of a college degree. Headlines such as “Will That College Degree Pay Off?”, “College Tuition vs. Investing: Is It Worth It?” or “College Degree Return on Investment” are just a sample of what appears when searching this topic. Each of these articles examines ROI via a different lens but with one consistent measure - salary.


When measuring ROI using salary, the consensus is that higher education degrees are worth the investment. But reducing the ROI conversation to salary or earnings over time leaves higher education with little actionable data on how to increase ROI beyond funneling more graduates into higher-paying professions. In addition, it continues to use data that has limitations regarding equity gaps and disparity in pay scales based on profession. It also begs the question, if salary consistently proves the value of a higher education degree, why do we continue to question that value?


Broadening the Scope

Measuring success and value beyond salary is key to telling higher education’s story. For example, the National Alumni Career Mobility Survey (NACM) redefines ROI by asking alums five and ten years after graduation their perspective on the worth of their degree. This survey explores the relationship between ROI and career mobility, educational satisfaction, and educational experiences.



The results paint a very different picture from exclusively using salary. Overall, 57% of respondents agreed that their tuition was worth the cost of their degree, and 45% of respondents agreed that their degree was worth the cost of their student loans. These results indicate the need for higher education to explore ROI beyond salary and first job.


Transforming Practice to Increase ROI

NACM research has consistently shown six High Impact Career Practices to significantly positively affect alums’ perceptions of the value of their degree. For example, respondents engaged in the High Impact Career Practices are more likely to:

  1. Perceive their degree to be worth the tuition they paid.

  2. Decide on their career before graduating.

  3. Have a higher level of career mobility post-graduation.

The six high impact career practices include the institution helping students to:

  • Understand career opportunities

  • Create a career plan

  • Network with employers

  • Have an internship related to their career goals

  • Receive helpful career advice in general but especially from faculty and employers.

  • Learn critical thinking

Nationally, engagement and access to learning critical thinking and receiving career advice are the most frequently engaged in practices. Networking with employers and creating a career plan are the least frequent.


Two relationships begin to appear when looking at the relationship between these six high impact career practices and alums’ assessment of the worth of their degree (ROI).

  1. A connection between high impact career practices and ROI.

  2. A more nuanced understanding with three tiers that connect increased participation in the High Impact Career practices and ROI.

  • Tier 1: critical thinking and career advice are the more engaged practices and saw the highest ROI.

  • Tier 2: internships related to career and understanding career opportunities, the practices that see a smaller number of alums engagement saw lower ROI.

  • Tier 3: networking with employers and creating a career plan. The practices with the least amount of engagement saw the lowest ROI.

Helpful career advice - 78% of those who agreed that they received helpful career advice also agreed that their degree was worth the tuition.

​Critical thinking - 72% of those who agreed that their degree helped them gain critical thinking skills also agreed that their degree was worth the tuition.



Career Opportunities - 57% of those who agreed that their institution helped them understand career opportunities also agreed that their degree was worth the tuition.

Internship related to career - 55% of those who agreed that their internship was related to their career also agreed that their degree was worth the tuition.



​Networking with employers - 46% of those who agreed that their institution helped them network with employers also agreed that their degree was worth the tuition.

Creating a Career Plan - 47% of those who agreed that their institution helped them create a plan for their career also agreed that their degree was worth the tuition.


Digging Deeper

You can explore NACM data using a different path by carving out just those alums who strongly agree/agreed with participating in or receiving each of the high impact career practices. Examining these groups’ perceptions of the value of their degree exposes the possibilities of how these practices can affect ROI.


​Those that strongly agree/agreed that…

​Were...

their institution helped them understand career opportunities

5.6 times more likely to agree that their degree was worth the tuition

their institution helped them create a plan for their career

7.0 times more likely to agree that their degree was worth the tuition

their institution helped them to network with employers

5.4 times more likely to agree that their degree was worth the tuition

they had internship related to their current career

3.9 times more likely to agree that their degree was worth the tuition

that they received helpful career advice

5.2 times more likely to agree that their degree was worth the tuition

that their degree helped them gain critical thinking skills

3.0 times more likely to agree that their degree was worth the tuition

Next steps

It is no longer acceptable for higher education institutions to only point towards job rates and salary to demonstrate ROI to its many constituents. Beyond these essential outcomes, institutions must now show how their college education leads to successful alums who see value in their degree.


Alum engaged in the High Impact Career Practices are likelier to perceive their degree to be worth the tuition they paid. Higher education should pay particular attention to increasing alum access to opportunities that connect internships with career goals, assist in understanding career opportunities, network with employers and create career plans to increase ROI. These practices can and should be a focus of institutional priorities and resources, with particular attention being paid to how they can be integrated into already established institutional practices such as academic advising, undergraduate research, internship requirements, curriculum, student employment, and service learning.





Dr. Kimberly Yousey-Elsener

SENIOR MANAGER OF CAREER RESEARCH & DATA

Kim Yousey-Elsener brings over two decades of experience in higher