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Websites that measure how colleges stack up are all the rage these days. But prospective adult students aren’t using those tools, and are instead relying on information from friends, advertisements and college websites.

That is one of the central findings of a newly released report from Public Agenda, a nonprofit research group.

For example, a national survey that was part of the research found that only 18 percent of adults who were considering enrolling in college had used interactive websites like the Campus Explorer or the White House’s College Scorecard. In accompanying focus groups, few said they had even heard of those sites.

Only 21 percent of the survey’s respondents spoke to a counselor who advises students about how to get into college in the past year, while 30 percent said they learned about colleges from a financial aid adviser.

In contrast, 76 percent of the surveyed potential students said they learned about colleges from friends, families and colleagues. And 64 cited advertisements on TV and billboards as sources.

Yet a full three-quarters of respondents said enough quality information about colleges is “out there."

That probably isn’t true, the report said.

“Despite being confident that they can find the advice and information they need to make good decisions, most prospective students lack what many experts and policymakers consider to be key pieces of information,” it said.

The study, which is dubbed "Is College Worth It for Me? How Adults Without Degrees Think About Going (Back) to School," was based on a national survey of 803 adult prospective students as well as meetings of eight focus groups. Public Agenda received funding from the Kresge Foundation for the research, which was used for a previously released report on attitudes about online learning. A related report on the for-profit higher education sector is forthcoming.

The new study also delved into the contentious debate over for-profits.

Potential students had little understanding about for-profits' financing and governance structures, according to the survey. They became more skeptical about the sector when the term “for-profit” was used in the focus group and when they were told about the “basic differences” between how for-profits and nonprofits operate.

For example, researchers showed focus-group participants graphs that compared for-profits with other institutions on prices, graduation rates and loan default rates. 

The focus groups appeared to be one-sided attacks on for-profits, said Noah Black, a spokesman for the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities, the industry's primary trade group.

"Much like we have witnessed in the public policy arena," Black said in an email, "if you put forth biased and one-sided information and accusations about institutions, you can negatively impact the opinions."

He said the study's principal findings, including adult students' favorable take on online courses and quality instruction, support the reasons why adult students often choose for-profits.

In its recommendations, the report suggested consideration for “leveling of the playing field for marketing to adult prospective students.”

For-profits tend to spend heavily on TV and web ads that often reach this group. As a result, “more marketing of unbiased information and better outreach by nonprofit institutions might be necessary, or at least explored,” the report said.

However, Black said nonprofit institutions do plenty of marketing, including through big-time college athletics.

Don't Know, Don't Care

Adult students are a large and growing portion of American higher education. Slightly more than a third of first-time students do not enter college right after high school, the report said, and a third of undergraduates are older than 25.

This group doesn’t just lack awareness about how to find data on college performance; prospective adult students aren’t particularly interested in key “accountability” metrics, according to the research.

Lawmakers, foundations and consumer groups are pushing hard for colleges to make more information available about how their students fare, including graduation and transfer rates, average debt levels and what sort of jobs graduates get.

Yet the survey found lukewarm feelings among potential students about whether those measures are valuable. Only half of respondents said knowing the average debt levels of graduates is essential information about a college. Faring worse were graduation rates (47 percent) and information about what jobs and salaries graduates typically get (45 percent).

Furthermore, just 17 percent of respondents cited significant worries about dropping out of college. That contrasts with the reality that more than half of adult students will fail to complete a bachelor’s degree within six years.

"It's not going to work to just put the data out there," said Carolin Hagelskamp, vice president and director of research at Public Agenda.

One reason for the apathy about metrics, according to participants in focus groups, is a common belief that they reflect more on students than an institution. “I don’t really care about what their graduation rate is, because that’s on me” said a man during a focus group that was held in El Paso.

Potential students liked the information on College Scorecard and similar websites, at least when prompted to try them out by focus group organizers. And respondents who had heard of those tools gave them good marks.

Some focus group participants wondered why the websites weren’t better-marketed and felt “cheated” for not having seen them before.

One woman at a Detroit focus group had substantial debt from an online degree program that she didn’t finish, according to the report. “I wish I had had this information a couple years ago,” the woman said. “That would have been wonderful.”

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