Information Unstacks the Deck

When choosing a college, many prospective students opt for the easiest or closest choice. Would giving them better information make for wiser decisions?
December 2, 2010

The reams of data culled from colleges across the country need to be broadened, put in one place by the federal government and made more consumer-friendly, a Harvard University professor argues in a paper to be released Friday.

Bridget Terry Long, professor of education and economics at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, says that, while the economic benefits of a postsecondary degree have been well documented, the escalating price tag and rates of default on student loans make the prospect of attending college an increasingly risky proposition. “Giving students and their families better information would enable them to avoid unworthy college investments that would leave them with substantial debt and little in the form of skills,” Long writes in her paper, "Grading Higher Education: Giving Consumers the Information They Need."

"Instead, information could help them identify the institutions that would maximize their chances for success."

The paper will be jointly released Friday, during a conference on job creation, by the Center for American Progress and the Hamilton Project, which is an economic policy initiative of The Brookings Institution.

In addition to calling for aggregating existing data on loan burdens borne by students, graduation rates, and average class sizes, among other categories, Long advocates for collecting information in new areas. These include the average aid package for a Pell Grant recipient; the salaries earned and positions held by students one, five and 10 years after they leave; a survey of employer impressions of graduates; and measurements of alumni satisfaction.

Long says that more-organized and better-targeted information will help prospective students and their families make wiser choices -- especially if this information is oriented to their needs and concerns. While acknowledging that most of the data she wants to be made available are, in fact, already public -- through the U.S. Department of Education’s College Navigator, the National Center for Education Statistics' Integrated Postsecondary Educational Data System, and the National Student Clearinghouse, among others -- this information crops up in disparate, hard-to-find sources and too often reflects a closed conversation between policy makers and college administrators. “Yes, there is lots of information, but is it packaged in a way that’s useful to consumers?” Long asked during a phone call with reporters Wednesday. “There is just so much out there and it’s so overwhelming that people aren’t sure where to start.”

This surfeit of information can end up overwhelming rather than enlightening students who -- particularly if they come from low-income backgrounds and are first-generation college-goers -- are some of the least equipped to navigate the complex choices facing them, she says. As a result, these students can find themselves selecting a college that is too expensive and cannot deliver on its promises. “When things are complicated, people often make erratic decisions or the easiest decisions, which might not be the best decisions,” said Long. In her paper, she cites a 2009 study by Public Agenda and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that suggested that two-thirds of college dropouts chose a college on the basis of location.

During Wednesday's call, Long offered an example of how she hoped her proposal would help vulnerable and poorly informed future students. She said such a student might be inclined to attend a nearby institution that floods the airwaves and plasters local billboards with advertisements with lofty promises, but has a 10 percent graduation rate. Another institution a half-mile away that boasts a rate of 80 percent would be a better choice, she said. At the same time, Long stresses in her paper that she is not singling out for-profit institutions, some of which have come under fire for the sorts of practices she described during the phone call. “This proposal is not targeted at any subset of educational institutions,” she writes. “Competition and increased public scrutiny is likely to increase outcomes across all institutions by putting pressure on poor institutions to do a better job.”

Long proposes that the federal government, which already collects many of the data, is best suited to function as a clearinghouse for the information she wants made available. It would enact what she envisions as a three-step process. The first would hook potential students -- in partnership with other government agencies, and social service and employment organizations -- with a snapshot of colleges, their true cost, and the success of their students. The second step would provide a more extensive array of information and include a list of colleges that meet various criteria. The third would allow students to customize their search even further to help make a decision.

Long said that her proposal, if enacted, would impose more transparency and accountability on the system of higher education. “We’re past the time now that we can just assume that we’re spending $15,000 a year and students are learning what they’re supposed to learn,” she said. Improving the process by which individuals select a college also would confer wider benefits, she writes, because such changes “would also translate into greater productivity for our country and a better use of government resources given the subsidies students receive.”

Long’s suggestions are, in themselves, not new, but they are in keeping with other recent pushes for greater accountability and clarity. The Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 calls for colleges to post price estimates on their website, and potential “gainful employment” regulations would require most for-profit-colleges and certificate programs offered at nonprofit institutions to show that those who complete their vocational programs get jobs with salaries that enable them to repay their student loans. Advocates for making information more accessible also have included Margaret Spellings, who, when she was Secretary of Education, often bemoaned the inaccessibility of such basic information as how long it takes to get a degree and how much it truly costs, as well as how skillfully an institution prepares students to work in the field (though many of the data are available on her agency’s Web site).

And Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president of government and public affairs at the American Council on Education, called Long’s effort “a terrific idea and a wonderful goal” that represents the latest in a line of attempts to upgrade the information available to prospective students and their families. “It’s a little bit like the Holy Grail,” he said. “We’re always seeking it.”

While this version of the Grail might seem to be more within reach than the one described in legend -- after all, much of the college data already exist and could be published by the U.S. Department of Education -- Hartle cautioned that significant swaths of information sought by Long still are not available. For example, statistics on after-graduation employment, and data on salaries and alumni satisfaction are hard to come by, as Long acknowledges in her paper, though she also argues that the benefits of collecting this information will ultimately prove worth the cost incurred to gather it.

Past attempts to bring a clear, concise set of relevant information have met with failure, said Hartle. In large part this is due to the sheer range of institutions and, even more strikingly, of potential students -- each with his or her own perspective, circumstances, and set of needs -- which ultimately proves too woolly to encapsulate in a one-page comparison. “The history of these efforts is that what starts off as a desire for a simple dashboard ends up looking like something from the Apollo manned moon mission,” he said.

Hartle’s deeper concern related to human nature and consumer behavior. In Long’s paper, she points to positive changes that redounded to consumers in other sectors -- such as K-12 education and health care -- when more information has been made available. Hartle lauded Long’s approach for its grounding in logic, but he also doubted how much reason could be brought to bear in the process. “As any parent with a teenager knows, rationality is rarely a strong consideration in choosing a college,” he said. “If only it were so.”


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