Much focus is currently turned on the metrics that measure the effectiveness of higher education. Selectiveness of admissions is certainly one such metric, but universities are also being judged on employability. However, it is not just the first job that matters; how employable graduates are long after they don cap and gown is also a critical measure of the effectiveness of an education, and institutions need to turn their focus to the lifelong relationship they will have with their graduates.

Gary W. Matkin, PhD, is the dean of the University of California, Irvine, Division of Continuing Education. As part of its focus on lifelong learning, UCI has recently opened a five-story, 75,000-square-foot facility dedicated to continuing education courses, programs, and specialized events. The facility supports what Matkin calls the “60-year curriculum,” his term for a relationship between student and institution that extends far beyond graduation into the career years and beyond.

Not just lifelong learning

Matkin explains that the idea of a 60-year curriculum goes far beyond what many people think of when they hear the term “lifelong learning.” “There’s a deep connection between when a person gets a degree and what [comes] after,” he says. He notes that regional accreditors have set the bar for measuring student outcomes, often putting measures in place that stipulate that “students need to be able to do something after they [complete a] degree.” Mandatory metrics and regulations extending from accreditor all the way to the federal government, such as gainful employment regulations, put the focus on the first job after college, but that shows only part of the picture.

“The real test is, ‘Are students living productive, meaningful lives?’” says Matkin. He points out that more immediate metrics for student success, such as employability after graduation, may be inaccurate. For example, a student may well seek a job after graduation, but he or she may also continue on to graduate school or to a post-bachelor’s experience like the Peace Corps, all of which may indicate “success” at that stage of life.

Another way to test for success at the end of a bachelor’s degree is critical thinking ability. There are many schema that purport to measure the ability to think critically, but students progress at different rates. Truly mature critical thinking ability may not exhibit itself until later in a graduate’s life, but the seeds of this ability were doubtlessly sewn, at least in part, by the institution.

Learning throughout life

Because all measures of institutional success are limited, Matkin proposes another potential measure of the effectiveness of a university. “One measure is the amount of education you consume after you graduate; that may be another indication of doing our job,” he says. The propensity of a student to continue his or her education, whether on a degree-seeking or ad hoc basis, may indicate that student’s commitment to continual development. “What more natural place to seek future learning than the university you graduated from?” Matkin says.

Many institutions, however, experience problems providing long-term support to their graduates. For example, Matkin notes that expanded career services may help to solve the problems that many institutions have when attempting to support their alumni. “Students [at some institutions] can take advantage of the career center while they are students, but [the institution] loses funding [to provide these services] once they have graduated,” he says.

“Career centers need to change their whole way of thinking about things,” Matkin says. Career centers need to be prepared to help prospective graduates “be competitive to get a job or to get into grad school.” Matkin believes it is important to continue to support the relationship between institution and alumnus long beyond graduation, in what he calls a “switch in emphasis.”

It is this idea that is behind the expansion of the UCI Division of Continuing Education. The division takes an active role in helping students continue to use the resources of UCI to further their careers. For example, “we have identified courses that articulate to certificate programs,” Matkin says. This allows currently enrolled students as well as returning graduates to select courses in a degree program that will do double duty as part of a certificate, reducing the amount of time it will take to earn a certificate that might be necessary down the line for demonstrating a certain skill or earning a promotion.

The UCI Division of Continuing Education has also developed a series of courses aimed at UCI undergraduates but open to anyone focused on career success. These courses are in MOOC format through Coursera, and they help students prepare for their professional lives. Courses include Career Success, Academic English: Writing, Conflict Resolution, Internet of Things, IOS Development for Creative Entrepreneurs, Master Intermediate Grammar, Project Management, and Virtual Teacher. Both Conflict Resolution and Project Management allow students to earn a certificate from course completion and apply the course to a certificate program offered by the Division of Continuing Education.

Additionally, there is the UCI+One program. This program, according to its description, “prepares recent graduates and young alumni for life after graduation,” including providing “customized solutions to meet the unique professional development and personal transition needs of participants, whether they need to land a job, explore graduate or professional school, engage in public service, or discover new opportunities through meaningful travel.” The program offers 85 hours of online content that students can self-select and complete on their own time schedule.

All of this means that UCI students can have a more seamless experience between undergraduate study and continuing education after graduation. Graduates remain linked to the institution, able to draw on its expertise throughout their lives. The wide variety of courses available, and now the new facility, mean that the UCI Division of Continuing Education can help its alumni “start a new career, build a company, or better develop an appreciation of the world around [them],” as the web site explains.

The need for education does not end when a student dons that cap and gown, and the relationship with one’s alma mater should not, either. UCI has developed an effective way of providing a lifetime of education to its graduates while strengthening and maintaining the connection it has already forged with these alumni. It will be fascinating to follow these participants as they continue to study over the next 60 years.

Jennifer Lorenzetti is editor of Academic Leader and a member of the Leadership in Higher Education Conference advisory board. She is a writer, speaker, higher education consultant, and the owner of Hilltop Communications.