LETTING THE NUMBERS LIE

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BY CODI WILSON

Universities have begun their push to lure graduating high school students. Last week, over 2,500 eager adolescents and their parents swarmed Ryerson’s campus. Two months ago, students crowded the Metro Convention Centre for the Ontario Universities Fair.

Getting a degree is more important than ever, and universities, looking for a financial boost, are taking advantage of this to bait prospective students. Promotional material puts graduate employment rates at over 90 per cent — which would be great if this number wasn’t inflated.

In a corner of the Convention Centre Matt Day sits surrounded by pamphlets and brochures. The London, Ont. local is looking to save some money by going to the University of Western Ontario but has not made up his mind just yet. Finances aren’t his only consideration — employment rates are a factor as well.

“Employment rates are like a tiebreaker situation between universities that are even in the other categories,” says Day. “If one university has a higher employment rate, naturally it makes me sway toward the higher one.”

Inside the exhibition room, Brock’s bright-red display is the centerpiece. It looks more like a spaceship pod than an information booth. Brock recruitment officers scan the crowd looking to lock eyes with anyone who seems curious.

Melissa Coleman, leader of the Brock booth, tells students that Brock graduates have high employment rates. “I think around 97 per cent based on the most recent statistical evidence.”

The Brock website claims that theirgraduates enjoy one of the highest employment rates of all Ontario universities at 97.5 per cent. What it doesn’t tell you is that this number only represents 22.8 per cent of its graduates.

The success of a survey is largely based on the number of respondents. The higher the response rate, the more accurate the survey. But Brock isn’t the only culprit passing off flimsy stats as fact; these flawed survey results can be found all across Ontario. Ryerson boasts an employment rate in the mid 90s but of 3,747 graduates, only 741 actually responded to the survey. That’s less than 20 per cent.

These numbers originate from a survey that was conducted on all Ontario university graduates in 2006 and the correlating employment and earning rates. The Council of Ontario Universities (COU) says that after six months, graduates at Ontario universities have an employment rate of 94.1 per cent and an average earning rate of $41,669.The COU states that this survey proves “Graduates of undergraduate programs at Ontario universities consistently experience high employment and earning rates,” despite evidence that these findings exclude almost 80 per cent of grads.

For universities attempting to court prospective students, misleading them may not be the smartest move. Promotional material already shows a very select perspective of the school; employing false statistics can only further skew expectations and possibly damage the university’s reputation — consequently tarnishing the hard-earned degrees of graduates.

 

Surveys with small selection pools aren’t necessarily bad but, there is a formula that must be followed. Mike Evans, a statistics professor at the University of Toronto, says, “If it were a random sampling of 20 per cent where they selected graduates and could track them down and get each one to respond, the survey would be accurate.” Evans calls this the selection effect. When you randomly sample 20 per cent of the class and get a response rate of 100 per cent, the survey will produce accurate, unbiased results. But if you select 100 per cent of the class and only 20 per cent respond, the survey yields flawed results.

The failure is twofold. First, the survey is missing a large portion of the graduating class and second, the survey is guilty of what is known as a sampling bias.

Jeff Rybak, author of What’s Wrong With University: And How To Make It Work For You Anyway, says, “While there’s probably little to no distortion in terms of willful misrepresentation, there is a huge sampling bias. Those with nothing positive to say and brag about, or in particular those who are dissatisfied with their institution or disassociated from it, are simply not going to reply.” The people who likely responded are those who felt inclined to report their success.

And forget employment in related fields; people who work at Wal-Mart or Starbucks are included in the number. It only reports the number of grads employed in any field.

Universities possess statistics on employment in related fields but choose to use the higher number instead. Ryerson would rather say that 95.9 per cent of grads are employed than admit that only 67.5 per cent reported being employed in a related field.

The Ministry of Training requests that universities make this information available to the public but doesn’t instruct schools to mislead students for marketing purposes.

The University of Western Ontario has an employment rate of 97.8 per cent. But instead of listing this stat on their website under “About Us” or “Quick Facts,” the number is absent from promotional material.

The same is true for U of T, Carlton and Queen’s. These universities don’t gloat about their inflated employment rates.

False advertisement isn’t uncharted territory. Ryerson is just following what private corporations have done for years. But universities are public institutions and should adhere to higher ethical standards. They’re institutions that promote education and learning. Deceiving students damages their credibility.

The majority of universities don’t even comply with ethical survey practices. They don’t include response rates on the survey results.

The Council of American Survey Research Organizations (CASRO) says that survey results must contain response rates upon release to the public. Under CASRO’s Code of Standards and Ethics for Survey Research it states:

“A Research Organization’s report to a Client or the Public should contain: A description of results of sample implementation including (a) a total number of sample elements contacted, (b) the number not reached, (c) the number of refusals, (d) the number of terminations, (e) the number of non-eligibles, (f) the number of completed interviews.”

Stephen Onyskay, a senior research associate for university planning at Ryerson, defended the school by saying that the Ministry of Training requires post-secondary institutions to disclose the survey to the public. When questioned about whether it is required to use these inflated numbers in promotional material, Onyskay replied, “No, it is certainly not required.”

Onyskay also said that these employment stats determine whether or not Ryerson receives performance-based funding. Performance-based funding is money that the Ministry of Training gives to universities in exchange for meeting certain targets. If the survey results indicate low employment rates, Ryerson misses out on the funding.

Choosing the right post-secondary institution is difficult enough without universities misleading you. Consider employment rates one less thing on your checklist.

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