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Keeping Score for the Federal Kitty
February 13, 2012 - 8:27am

The U.S. Department of Education recently announced its plan to develop and release a “College Score Card” intended to assist families compare college costs and net tuitions prices. If you’re wondering whether information on college tuition is already available, the answer is yes. This College Scorecard, however, is partly intended to help families determine “value.” That is, balancing the cost of attendance at particular institutions against measures like graduation rates, loan repayments percentages, and the likelihood of getting a job after graduation. The idea is that families would make better choices about where to attend college based on the “best value” thereby improving their chances of completion — not to mention more efficiently using federal financial aid dollars.  

In the same spirit, the 2013 federal budget will likely include measures to contain soaring tuition costs.  This includes potentially leveraging $10 billion dollars in student aid. The distribution of Work-Study funds, Supplemental Education Opportunity Grants, and Perkins Loans could be administered using new formulas that attempt to reward institutions for controlling tuition increases, graduating higher percentages of students, and serving low-income and under-privileged students.

A colleague from Capitol Hill always reminds me that policy and politics are mutually exclusive concepts (and practices). That said, the political process will ultimately determine which measures are passed and what they look like in the end. What should be clear to institutional leaders are two things:  

1) There is a growing association between public funding for higher education and institutional outcomes. In this economic environment the prevailing theory is that resources are simply too precious to invest in institutions that do not yield good returns.  

2) There is a growing premium placed on data related to student performance, progress to degree, and prospects after graduation. These measures relative to the cost of attendance seems to equal value these days.  

The higher education community has at least 30 years of research on the combination of factors students consider when choosing where to attend college. There is as much research on the factors that contribute to their success once there. The question is whether “value” should be added to the mix of variables that matter. Higher education pundits will debate any attempt to quantify a good college education and whether Newberry College with a price tag of $28,525 (for tuition, room and board) is a better value than Bates College at $57,350. In America value is not a matter of fact but perception.

Truth is, the institutions most affected by these measures will likely be public colleges and universities with a greater dependency on public dollars, accompanied by thinner operating margins, and serving students with the greatest academic and financial needs. Providing better information to students and families is a worthwhile cause. Assessing value is much more complicated given the myriad of human and institutional factors involved. To me, some of the best values in higher education would not necessarily fare well according to a formula and vice versa. And, the calculated value for institutions and their importance might not be perfect correlates. Keeping score for public information is a service. Keeping score for money is a different game.


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