10 Things You Should Know About College Admisssions

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For the last week, The Atlantic Business has been running a special report on college admissions, with a dozen articles and essays on everything from building a Match.com for applying students to assessing the landscape of online higher education. If you missed our coverage, it's archived here. Here are some highlights, including quotes, stats, and graphs.

1) The Rankings Crisis Isn't the Real College Crisis

Here is the breakdown of 21-year olds in 2009. Sixty percent aren't in college. Twenty percent didn't graduate from high school. One percent is going to the kind of schools that make headlines in rankings.


2) Financial Aid Unfairly Punishes Families Who Save

3) Tuition Keeps Rising Because Enough People Will Pay It ...

Edward Fiske, best-selling author of college guides: "Among the elite private schools, tuition is driven by what the market will bear. It's that simple. They charge a higher tuition because they can. There is literature showing that colleges behave like any nonprofit institution. They raise as much as they can, and spend as much to improve offerings. Faced with the choice between attracting pouring money into financial aid or spending it on something to improve quality of offerings, they'll often opt for the latter choice."

4) ... and Because, For Better or Worse, University Presidents Totally Understand the Prestige Game in Higher Ed

Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, former president of George Washington University: "Tuitions rise because costs rise. As the payroll grows, tuition goes up. Universities really do get better faculty by providing better compensation and benefits. Professors, it turns out, are economic men and women: Prestige tends to be indexed to quality and quality tends to be measured by the attributes of an institution: the laboratories, libraries, studios, playing fields, recreational and residential facilities; the services for counseling. When one talks about a top 50 university, one is talking about both perception and reality."

5) College's Most Important Trend Is the Rise of the Adult Student

hess2college.pngThere are plenty of good jobs that don't require a four-year degree. After all, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that two-thirds of the labor force has less than a four-year degree, including nearly half of those in professional occupations and one-third of those in management roles. It pays for workers to earn these credentials; according to the BLS, that workers with an associate's degree earned $141 more per week, on average, than those whose highest degree is a high school diploma. 

But subbacalaureate programs continue to be regarded as marginal in the press and the higher education mainstream. Universities turn their nose up at them. Policies and norms remain oriented towards "traditional" students. Rankings, awards, and honors go to institutions with great sports teams, prize-winning researchers, or elite student bodies--never to those that are helping nontraditional students master new skills and so that they can reenter the workforce, get promoted, or change careers.

6) The Value of a College Degree Is Still High...

7) ... But the "College Premium" Might Be Losing Some Steam ...

college premium for young grads.png
8) ... And the Last Decade Was Horrible, Even for Bachelor's Holders

9) Student Debt Is a Serious Problem

crazy student loans 2011-q2.png

10) We Need a Consumer Reports for Colleges
Compared to other large investments that Americans make, the information that prospective students have about college costs and quality is woefully incomplete. Consumers in the market for a new car, a new house, or even a new washing machine can look to Consumer Reports, Zillow, the Kelley Blue Book, and other outlets for reams of comparable information about current prices, maintenance costs, and resale values. Sure, prospective college students have the popular U.S. News and World Report rankings, but these are largely based on institutional reputation, selectivity, and other measures that fail to capture return on investment. What if consumers want to figure out what their credential might be worth on the labor market after they graduate? Whether they'll have enough income to live comfortably and still pay back their loans? Whether students actually learn anything over the course of their program? On important questions like these, prospective students are in the dark.
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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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