When you start searching for that perfect college for your child, you might think there’s plenty of information to help you with your decision. Just for starters, every college has a website that will give you all the essentials.
Take Stephens College, a private, four-year women’s school in Columbia, Missouri. A quick tour of its website will tell you that the college offers more than 50 major and minors, everything from English to event planning to equestrian science. Class sizes average just 13 students. Annual costs total $32,250, but nearly all students get some kind of financial aid. And the campus looks nice.
But what you won’t see without diligent searching is that half of Stephens students fail to graduate, even after six years. Not to pick on Stephens, which does mention that statistic deep in its website. Point is, little of the data that colleges provide really tell you much about the value of your investment: the quality of the education, the experience of the students, or how the graduates fare later in life. Instead parents have long accepted the value of the diploma on faith. And many assume that a college that charges $50,000 a year will give their child a better education than one that charges $25,000.
That may be about to change. As tapped-out families realize they can no longer borrow more and more for expensive colleges, they are increasingly focusing on lower-priced schools. As two college officials recently warned, higher education may be the next bubble to burst. Many experts are even questioning the value of a college degree in an economy where B.A.s are competing, often unsuccessfully, with high school graduates and those with vocational training.
All of which may give momentum to long-standing efforts to improve higher education accountability, which is something that colleges have successfully resisted for years. (Ironically, these same schools have demanded increasing amounts of information about applicants and their parents’ ability to pay.) As Kevin Carey, policy director at Education Sector, noted in a recent interview, “Families need more disclosure about value of the education their money is buying, and the federal government should encourage colleges to make this information transparent.”
Truth is, many colleges do a poor job at graduating well-educated students. A recent study by the American Enterprise Institute found that on average four-year colleges graduate fewer than 60% of their students with six years. And there were wide differences among all categories of schools; even for the most competitive colleges, average graduation rates differed by 13 percentage points. (To find out the graduation rates for many four year colleges, go to collegeresults.org.) Other studies have found that good students who attended less prestigious colleges ended up earning the same as those who went to brand-name schools.
It wouldn’t be that hard to provide data about educational quality, since schools compile most of it anyway. They just keep it private, which is curious considering that most colleges are public institutions or or least partially funded by taxpayers. The National Survey of Student Engagement gathers loads of data on how they spend their time in school and how they feel about their education.The College Learning Assessment tests students’ ability to reason analytically and solve problems during their academic career. As for student outcomes after graduation, well, most colleges keep tabs on their alumni for fundraising purposes. So it’s time that they shared some of that information with tuition-paying families. And who knows? A little more disclosure might improve the quality of higher education and even slow the rate of tuition hikes.
Tell us, what information would you like colleges to provide?