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Apparently, The Girl has become the go-to person in her friend group for advice about the college search and application process. She tells me this with a smile, as if I’m her secret supplier of intel. Laundering my answers through her makes them palatable to her friends, who are otherwise immune to adult advice.

I’ll admit being complicit. I don’t want to see her friends make mistakes that could hurt them.

For instance, she has one friend who wants to be a filmmaker. He’s from a middle-class family. He was going to apply early decision to NYU. I sent the word back that if he did, and he got in, he’d be setting himself up for a crushing student loan burden in a field in which it’s hard to make much money at the outset. I recommended that he apply via regular decision, so he could at least compare offers from various schools. Somehow, TG was able to translate that into terms that made sense to him; he told her that he sent in his application for the regular-decision round.

He may be less likely to get in, but he’ll be much more likely to afford to go wherever he does get in. And in that field, I suspect the alma mater matters a lot less than a good reel.

The woman who cuts (what’s left of) my hair has a daughter who attends Brookdale. They had some paperwork issues with financial aid: apparently, the mom never changed her name on her Social Security card when she got married, which led to all manner of confusion. I gave her the name of the campus financial aid director, who was able to walk her through the process and arrange for aid. When I got my last haircut, the mom was grateful for the director’s help, and for my arranging the connection.

In both cases, some simple information prevented much larger issues. For TG’s friend, it may have avoided years of debt peonage. For my haircutter, it allowed her daughter to come back and finish her degree. In both cases, it was just luck that they had connections -- even if indirect -- to someone who could offer those tips.

How many people don’t have that?

I thought about this when I saw the latest version of a higher ed shopper’s guide. This one is the “equitable value explorer,” and it applies infographics to IPEDS and College Scorecard data to help potential students and their families look at the relative return on investment of various schools. It’s useless in the ways that these tools tend to be: it doesn’t account for majors, it doesn’t disaggregate, it doesn’t measure the relative prosperity or poverty of a given area, and it doesn’t look at actual costs of attendance. It doesn’t even allow a prospective student to enter a geographic area smaller than a state and search there. A student who doesn’t want to go more than 30 miles from home isn’t likely to find much useful in seeing how a community college on the other side of the state compares to their local one.

This is not how most people choose colleges, and it won’t be. Nor should it be.

As Kevin Carey rightly notes this week, treating a college decision like the decision to buy a car is a category mistake. If a car turns out to have been a bad choice, you can trade it in or sell it. It’s transferable. Degrees are not transferable. You can’t trade them in or sell them.

They’re also much more specialized. An engineering major from Hypothetical State is likely to make more money, on average, than an English major from Hypothetical State. Both figure into the “average earnings” of Hypothetical State graduates, creating a hybrid figure of unclear utility. Does the hybrid figure represent the quality of the college, the balance of enrollments in one major as against another, the demographics of the student body or the local job market? The obvious answer is “yes.” Reducing it to any one of those simply gets it wrong.

I don’t think we can solve the epistemological issue elegantly at scale. There are just too many variables, ranging from student background and interest to economic cycles to location to, yes, performance.

Instead, we need to make the stakes lower. That means ensuring that good, affordable, public options are widely available and reasonably simple to navigate. Flood the zone with quality, and those fine-grained distinctions won’t matter so much. Not everyone has a vicarious coach in the wings, and they shouldn’t need one.

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