Right Under Her Nose?

Margaret Spellings says higher ed must change because parents can't find basic information. What if it exists -- often on her own Web site?
November 29, 2006

It's part of Education Secretary Margaret Spellings' stock speech on higher education, explaining why she appointed a commission to study what's wrong with colleges -- and why it's time to change the accreditation system and make other changes to promote more accountability and document student learning, as the panel suggested.

The wording doesn't change much from speech to speech. Here's how she expressed it this month to a group of faculty members and deans at a meeting on promoting student success:

"The absence of information means we can't answer basic questions families have during the college selection process," Spellings said. "For example, how long will it take to get a degree? Will this institution prepare me for the field I want to work in? And how much is this education really going to cost? When my daughter applied to college two years ago, I found it challenging to get the answers I needed. And I'm the secretary of education!"

That sounds pretty damning. The secretary of education has a tough time finding out how long it would take a student to graduate or how much college costs? Spellings frequently refers to her daughter's college search when making these points, so we decided to see what Spellings or any parent could find today. Is that information difficult to get? Spellings' daughter enrolled at Davidson College, a liberal arts institution in North Carolina. According to Davidson, the top "overlap" colleges in applications to Davidson are Duke, Vanderbilt and Wake Forest Universities, and the Universities of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Virginia.

It turns out that a parent whose child was looking at those institutions could find out how long it would take a student to get a degree and how much college would cost -- and a lot of information suggesting whether college prepares students for careers -- all in one place, available at no charge: the Education Department's Web site.

COOL, the acronym for the College Opportunities Online Locator, isn't the best known Web site. If you type in "college information" or "college search" to Google, you get a bunch of commercial sites first. Even on the Education Department's Web site, it doesn't merit inclusion on the home page or the main page for parents. But with a few clicks or a search, parents can find it -- as well as answers to most of Spellings' questions.

Before writing a tuition check to Davidson, for example, she could find out quite a lot. If worried about how many years she would be paying tuition, Spellings could check out the "retention/graduation rates" section, and learn the year-to-year retention rates, the graduation rates after four, five and six years, and breakdowns by gender, race and ethnicity. (Davidson's rates are impressive, so the odds are in favor of just four years of undergraduate tuition checks for the secretary.)

What about cost? Figures are provided for tuition, books, and room and board. Of course, what colleges charge is only part of the picture, but the Education Department's Web site (all in this same database -- no jumping around into the deep recesses of the education statistics division) will tell a parent what percentage of students at a college receive aid, the percentage receiving various kinds of grants and loans, and the average size of various grants and loans.

The COOL site doesn't report on whether students are being prepared for their desired careers, although there is definitely information that might help someone concerned about the issue. Degrees by major field are provided, so a parent could see that at Davidson, students are much more likely to graduate with a degree in the social sciences or history than mathematics or the physical sciences. The site also includes information about default rates -- and it's a good guess that Davidson's new alumni, with only one borrower in default in the last three years, are either employed or in graduate school at very healthy rates.

All of the above data is totally comparable among institutions -- so a parent can compare any of these things, with comparable data, courtesy of the Education Department.

On the question of whether students are prepared for jobs -- which relates to broader questions Spellings and others have asked about whether the education students receive is strong enough -- a sampling of the Web sites of colleges that a Davidson applicant might look at yields plenty of information that isn't on the COOL site. At Davidson, for example,  the career services department maintains a Web site in which each major has a careers section identifying career-related skills, the kinds of employers who hire Davidson graduates with that major, and the jobs of recent graduates in the field. Recent classics graduates, for example, are working as a librarian, a platoon leader, a paralegal, a teacher, and an investment banker, among other job titles.

There is less comparability across institutions with this kind of information -- at least for competitive colleges that enroll traditional age undergraduates. At the same time, career services has become one of the ways colleges compete with one another -- and the colleges with which Davidson competes for students reflect this. Wake Forest University has full descriptions of the career-related services it provides -- and a special section for parents, including an invitation for parents to submit questions.

The most detailed information about job placement tends to be available from community colleges and other vocationally oriented institutions -- institutions that aren't part of the admissions frenzy Spellings cites in explaining the need for more information for applicants and parents. In Washington State, for example, a database for all vocational programs in the state provides information on recent graduates' rates of employment and median, high, and low wage levels, among other information.

No one in higher education would deny that there are serious problems facing academe -- and all kinds of criticisms can be made of colleges, accreditors and other players. And the COOL database doesn't provide information on what individual students learn.

But a review of available information does raise the questions: Is it fair for the education secretary to say that parents can't find "basic" information about costs and graduation rates when much of that information is on the department's Web site and much more is available with just a few further clicks? Is it fair to call for major changes in higher education, citing the alleged lack of information about such things as costs and graduation rates, when a speedier way to share this information might be to, say, put a link on the Education Department's home page?

Samara Yudof, a spokeswoman for Spellings, said via e-mail that the secretary stood by her contention that "more data is needed to help students and their families make more informed decisions about their futures." Even though there is "some information" available on potential college costs and graduation rates for first-time, full-time traditional students, the spokeswoman said, "education is not a one-size-fits-all enterprise."

Yudof repeated the secretary's contention that parents aren't able to get answers to "basic questions" such as "How long will it take to get a degree? Will this institution prepare me for the field I want to work in? How much is this education really going to cost? How much are students learning?"

She also said students should be able to compare public and private institutions, two-year and four-year institutions, and in-state vs. out of state. (In fact, the Education Department's Web site does include data for two-year and four-year institutions, and for public institutions, it provides both in-state and out-of-state tuition rates -- see this example from North Carolina.) Yudof did not respond to whether it was fair to say basic information wasn't available, given how much information is available on the department's Web site.

One area Yudof noted that is not covered by the department's Web site is the cause of tuition increases. "As the secretary has noted, her daughter's college costs went up this year ... for what?" Yudof said. "And, this is not unique to her. As you know, for most families, this is one of the most expensive investments they make -- yet there is little to no information on why costs are so high and what they're getting in return."


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