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Essay on importance of transparency in cutting college costs

Transparency Can Cut Costs

April 11, 2013

Higher education believes in sustainability to such extent that at Midwestern universities, like my own, we advocate for ingredients on food labels. The biggest issue in sustainability, however, is not a green environment as much as the greenbacks it takes to earn a college degree.

University presidents are trying with moderate success to lower burgeoning student debt, more than $29,000 on average per student at my institution with similar amounts at other public colleges and universities. The conventional wisdom is to raise more scholarships from alumni (many of whom are still paying off debt), raise legislative awareness about the importance of higher education (been there, done that) and, more recently, raise students’ financial acumen about the cost of a degree. (Some 13 percent of Iowa State University students with loans didn’t realize they had debt).

Of all consumer economic sectors, higher education can do a better job in providing information about what tuition dollars buy. To mitigate that effect, the Iowa State Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication, which I direct, has assembled a fact sheet for current and prospective students,  informing them how long it takes to earn a journalism or advertising degree, the availability of scholarships and financial aid, current enrollment figures, recruitment and retention rates, placement data within six months of graduation (in Iowa, U.S. and abroad), and average starting salaries in advertising, journalism and public relations.

Average student debt remains a problem at Iowa State. Because administration here has focused on lowering debt, it is slowly decreasing from a high of $30,619 for bachelor's graduates in 2005-06 to $29,324 in in 2010-11. We all know that is not good enough at a land-grant institution where a college education should be most affordable.

Average debt for Iowa State advertising and journalism majors from 2005-11 essentially mirrored that of the university, with advertising hovering at $29,000 over the past eight years and journalism at about $27,000. We have been addressing debt in orientation classes by requiring students to file four-year undergraduate plans of study, to discourage people from taking more than four years (and thereby adding to their debt). We have streamlined curriculums to accelerate graduation. We also have raised millions in support from our donors.

Starting salaries in a desired field should at least equal average student debt so that graduates pay off loans in about 10 years while working in their chosen professions.

In our disciplines jobs are readily available with sufficient entry-level salaries to offset debt. But that assumes we can graduate students within 4-5 years (about 60 percent at Greenlee do) and place them in industry, graduate school or military (we place 97 percent within six months of commencement). More than half of our most recent graduates have found employment in Iowa, a fact about which we are proud, as a land-grant institution serves the state as well as the nation and world.

This is why transparency is vital if we ever hope to enlist faculty and administration (with oversight by legislatures and regents) in the collective effort to reduce tuition. I have written about that previously in Inside Higher Ed, focusing on curricular expansion and student debt.

In October 2012 we began providing transparent data on our school website that goes beyond that recommended in the College Scorecard, announced in President Obama’s 2013 State of the Union address. Each institution’s "scorecard" is supposed to provide information about default and graduation rates, average debt, cost of tuition, and job prospects after graduation.

The scorecard has been criticized on a number of fronts. There is concern that students at prestigious colleges, such as the Ivy League, for example, may not need to borrow as much as counterparts at less wealthy public institutions. Prospective students viewing average loan debt might be misled by such a statistic. The liberal arts also might come off poorly because technical and professional degree-holders earn more in entry-level positions.

Those are persuasive arguments that have little to do with transparency, which has three rules:

  • Transparency requires data. No data, no transparency.
  • Transparency requires sunshine. No sunshine, no transparency.
  • Transparency requires assessment. No assessment, no solution.

In other words, you not only must gather facts; you need to display those facts for all to see and then assess how to address problem areas. The real challenge is collecting data down to the degree level (rather than at the institutional level) and then showcasing that information on each department’s website.

Your institution, college, school or department may balk at sharing data as we are doing at the Greenlee School. There is a reluctance to acknowledge potentially embarrassing information as there was in the 1990s about publicizing crime statistics on campuses. Just as those days ended by regulation, law and decree, the current status quo of documenting vital statistics in hard-to-access fact books also soon will end.

In September, we received a letter from the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications, informing us that no later than next fall accredited colleges like ours must post graduation and retention statistics clearly on our websites, with data updated annually.

Upon further investigation, we found that the new requirement was inspired by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, which advocates self-regulation of academic quality through accreditation. (CHEA recognizes ACEJMC.) "CHEA has been encouraging colleges, universities and accrediting organizations to provide additional information to the public about performance and what counts as academic effectiveness for some time," Judith Eaton, CHEA president, told me. Eaton added that the decision on what data to share with constituents is left up to individual institutions and academic units, but particularly welcomes "evidence of student achievement, what students learn and can do."

We have an obligation to share that information with the public. Data on student debt per academic discipline is an essential criterion of this effort. When coupled with placement, retention and graduation rates, along with job opportunities, that information can help prospective students and their parents make smart consumer choices.

However, typical institutions collect debt data only at the college and university levels. Thus, generating statistics for each academic unit can overload financial aid offices, which already have significant reporting obligations to document how federal and state aid was distributed and to make a case for more in the future. If any office needs expanding to help offset student debt, financial aid should be a top priority.

Imagine, though, the benefit of supporting that office and the utility of the data that it can generate, particularly if the information is posted on websites. What would be the effect in the public, legislative and regents’ arenas if every academic unit was obligated to do this for institutional reaccreditation?

Taxpayers would know which department requires 6.5 years on average to graduate students with a bachelor’s degree, which department’s average student debt exceeds the institutional norm, and which department’s graduates are apt to find jobs in their majors or assistantships in graduate school. These data then can become part of a unit’s assessment plan, with the emphasis on continuous improvement. Faculty can streamline curriculums with a focus on rigor rather than pedagogical expansion. Chairs can put more emphasis on recruitment and retention. Directors and deans can emphasize fund-raising. Provosts can revise budget models to reward units that recruit, retain and graduate students in a timely manner. Presidents can tout access to education to regain the public’s trust, which just may be the key to higher levels of fund-raising and legislative support.

Internally, we would also have additional criteria to evaluate the performance of chairs, deans, provosts and presidents and to focus the faculty on areas of public service and access to education.

 

Bio

Michael Bugeja chairs the Contemporary Leadership Committee of the Association of Schools of Journalism and Mass Communication.

 

 

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