This month, Vice President Joe Biden led a round-table discussion with a group of college and university presidents from some of our nation’s largest institutions of higher education. The outcome of that meeting was an agreement by the leaders of 10 institutions or higher education systems to include a standardized “shopping sheet” in the financial aid packets sent to incoming students, beginning in the fall of 2013. A sample of the “shopping sheet,” which is designed to provide information relating to college costs, student indebtedness, and likelihood of degree completion, can be found here .
Though I recognize the alarming increase in college costs that has occurred during the last 15 years, and I applaud any honest effort to address this problem, I fear the “shopping sheet” fails to break new ground.
First, this seems to be an attempt to repackage something that many colleges and universities are already doing. The College Portrait’s Voluntary System of Accountability  (VSA) provides a more detailed and nuanced collection of pertinent information for those considering their college options. It includes costs related to tuition and fees, a personalized estimation of financial aid and loans, as well as details and data concerning admissions, campus life, student experiences/outcomes, and much more. The VSA is easy to navigate and also allows for comparison of institutions. Hundreds of colleges and universities are already participating in the VSA, and expansion of that number would be a positive step. Given the existence of the VSA, introduction of the “shopping sheet” seems a bit redundant and doesn’t offer any solution to the cost issue.
Second, the “shopping sheet” fails to address one of the hidden issues in the college-cost discussion -- time to degree. As I have discussed in the past,  graduating on time dramatically reduces the total cost of college and increases one’s lifetime earning potential. Though the “shopping sheet” provides a snapshot of institutional and average 4-year graduation rates as well as student retention rates, this information is not sufficient for understanding the total cost/value proposition of attending a college. The College of New Jersey, where I serve as president, is one of only six public colleges and universities nationally that maintain 4-year graduation rates greater than 70 percent.
The reality is that most college students now take longer than 4 years to complete their degrees, or do not graduate at all. That makes 6-year graduation rates, which are included in the VSA but omitted from the “shopping sheet,” an important statistic for consideration. Other vital outcomes, such as post-graduate employment information, graduate school admission rates, and professional license or certification exam passage rates, are published on TCNJ’s admissions web site and in other locations. These data points can be very informative during the college-selection process but are currently overlooked by both the “shopping sheet” and the VSA. Inclusion of that information would be a strong enhancement.
Third, doing this sort of reporting through the “shopping sheet” or VSA or some other government-imposed mechanism, whether state or federal, forces colleges and universities to expend resources. The information provided in these reports can be very useful, but it does not get aggregated or analyzed unless you hire staff to do that work. That’s appropriate, if the expenditures improve educational quality or help increase effectiveness. Unfortunately, though collecting data and issuing reports may illustrate the cost problem, those actions will not solve the problem.
In order to actually address the college-cost issue, institutions must operate strategically and efficiently. They must manage course offerings in ways that optimize the deployment faculty and staff, facilitate the attainment of learning outcomes, and provide students with access to the courses they need for timely degree completion. Institutions also must offer support services that undergird the academic experience, eliminate roadblocks, and enhance the prospects of students graduating on time. Therefore, neither institutions nor their students can afford unnecessary redundancy in the name of political one-upmanship.
I think we can all agree that colleges and universities should be open and honest with prospective students about the actual cost of attaining a degree, not just enrolling for a year. Providing information that allows for simple, accurate comparison of institutions is a worthwhile goal, but I believe adding a few data points to the VSA would be a better strategy than implementing the “shopping sheet.” It’s important to remember, though, that talking about and reporting on our affordability problem is not enough; we need to find ways to solve it.
R. Barbara Gitenstein is president of the College of New Jersey.