Colleges miss a key opportunity to sell themselves by failing to track what happens to students after leaving college, researchers have warned.
Two reports - one based on five years' research in the North-west and the other commissioned by the Further Education Development Agency - say simple monitoring systems to improve awareness of past student successes can boost recruitment.
The FEDA report looks at the need for closer tracking of students throughout college. The second report, from the Preston-based Responsive College Unit offers guidance on tracking students after college.
The reports follow criticism by the Further Education Funding Council last month. An FEFC survey found most colleges had no centralised system to record former students' destinations and more than half had no information on drop-out rates, despite requirements of the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act.
The need for better information is also underlined by figures from the training and enterprise councils (TES, March 8) which revealed a lost generation of 230,000 18 to 20-year-olds who are not in education, work or training.
The Audit Commission found that more than a third of 16 to 19-year-olds starting courses did not complete them, at an estimated cost of Pounds 330 million a year to the taxpayer.
Student Tracking, the first in a series of studies to be produced by FEDA for college managers, says more information on students activities is needed because student curriculum needs are so complex. Many courses are individually- tailored and college funding depends partly on students' achievements, not just attendance numbers. .
Kevin Donovan, the report's author, said: "Colleges need to keep track of their students to maximise funding and to give students the best learning experience they can."
The book lists 37 organisations which provide computerised student tracking systems and bodies which offer advice.
20 steps to efficient and effective destinations monitoring, by the Responsive College Unit, focuses on what happens to students after they finish their courses. The unit started working with colleges to track their former students in 1990.
Its success rate rose from 72 per cent to 92 per cent in its first year of operation and continued rising for the next two years. The booklet lists 20 steps which can be implemented by colleges to improve information on student destinations.
The RCU says colleges should use trained consultants to track and contact ex-students at evenings and weekends. Pre-paid postcards should be sent regularly to homes. Trades such as health, catering and engineering should be logged and monitored where success is common for ex-students.
Author Gordon Aitken, director of the RCU, said accurate information was important as it helped colleges with their marketing.
"Former students are usually happy to tell you what they are doing.
"It's good customer care as it shows you are interested in them even after they have left. That helps earn the college a good name."