WASHINGTON -- As the Obama administration has talked more in recent months about tuition pricing and the value of a college education, Education Secretary Arne Duncan has seized on one statistic: that 75 percent of students who fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, Duncan says, have their results sent only to one college.
And that, the secretary says, is a problem. Among the thousands of colleges and universities in the country, students should be applying to more than one to find their best fit, he said at several meetings and on conference calls  with reporters in recent weeks -- both doing more comparison shopping before applying and comparing financial aid packages from different institutions.
One problem: They already are. An annual study of first-time, full-time freshmen -- the most likely group to go through a traditional admissions process -- finds that the vast majority apply to more than one college, and more than half apply to at least five different colleges.
In some ways, the FAFSA statistic is an unusual talking point for Duncan, who -- like the rest of the Obama administration -- has usually emphasized the need for more Americans to get any kind of college credential. The focus has been on access, not on applications.
It’s also a poor proxy to determine how many colleges students are applying to, said Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of FinAid.org. Many students don’t fill out the FAFSA until they’re already accepted to college, and presumably aren’t sending their information to colleges that have rejected their applications (or colleges in which they've lost interest). Returning students who need financial aid also fill out the form every year.
The Higher Education Research Institute surveys a representative sample of each year’s entering freshmen class at four-year colleges for its annual report . In 2011, just 12 percent of students said they had applied to only one college.
Students at community colleges and for-profit colleges, which often have open-access policies and attract students who aren’t interested in a competitive admissions process, make up slightly more than half of all undergraduates. Even taking those students into account, more than 25 percent of students are applying to more than one college.
Duncan might be using the statistic to suggest that students attending for-profit colleges consider community college, which is often a less expensive option, Kantrowitz suggested in an e-mail.
Too many students choose colleges based on distance from home, not on price, majors, programs or other factors, Duncan said. Getting more students to apply to more colleges -- although it’s unclear how the Education Department might accomplish that, and if there are plans to do so beyond using the bully pulpit to encourage more applications -- is a way to make sure that students are looking for a program that’s right for them.
But it also emphasizes an increasing move by the administration to classify a college education as a consumer product, ringed with disclosures and protections. This is true not just for student loans -- many of which now fall under the aegis of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which is preparing a report on the private student loan market expected in July -- but, in many ways, for a college education as a whole.
The financial aid comparison sheet put forward by the consumer protection bureau, which 10 colleges and state higher education systems recently agreed to adopt , is called a “shopping sheet.” Duncan, in encouraging students to compare financial aid packages and programs, as well as apply to more colleges, has frequently called for students to “shop around.”
That emphasis worries Lloyd Thacker, director of the Education Conservancy, a group that tries to reform college admissions. “‘Shopping around,’ from my standpoint, isn’t the best term, and it wasn’t the term that I would use,” Thacker said. “The problem with the admissions process is it’s become too much like a transaction or consumer process, and less like an investment in education.”
Duncan said he believes that encouraging students to apply to more colleges will eventually lead them to make better choices about what institutions and programs are best for them. But the evidence doesn’t bear that out, Thacker said.
“Applications are increasing among a certain group of students, and we know that,” Thacker said. “This is not helping the process become more rational, predictable or productive... in fact, it’s making the process increase in cost and complexity.”
That cost might be one more barrier to encouraging students to apply to more colleges. About 90 percent of four-year colleges also have an application fee, usually around $40. Most -- but not all -- allow poor students to avoid paying the fee, but that’s not always widely known.
“Simply getting students to apply to more colleges doesn’t seem to be a guarantee that you increase the college-going rates,” Thacker said. “I’m not saying what he’s doing is necessarily wrong,” he said of Duncan. “But you need to be very thoughtful that good intentions are tied to sound research.”