Should Washington Force Colleges to Release a Consumer Report Card?

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Should colleges be required to prominently post consumer information for prospective students in a report card or "nutrition label" for higher ed? That was our latest question to you in "Working It Out," our collaborative, crowd-sourced column about work and economics. And boy, did you ever respond -- on our site, on college discussion boards, and in our 1,000-person online poll from Toluna.

There's a deep divide. In the pro camp, students and professors argued that schools had an obligation to be more forthcoming about likely outcomes from a college investment. They called on schools to publish specs like debt-after-graduation and earnings-by-degree. In the anti camp, we heard most loudly from people who consider the college experience unquantifiable and easily perverted by simple metrics.

Here are the ten best arguments from our most-commented "Working It Out" feature yet:

The case for a college report card is compelling

Compelling reason #1: students already owe $1 trillion in nondischargeable, government-guaranteed student loans.

Compelling reason #2: the data reported to US News is almost never audited, and there is much temptation to game the rankings.  U. of Illinois U-C Law School, Villanova Law, and Clemson University are three recent institutions that have been caught red-handed sending false or altered stats to US News.

Another data point to include: the number of graduates in grad school within five years.  At first blush, a high percentage may seem great, and on occasion, it is.  However, as a grad of a very highly ranked liberal arts college that routinely claims that 70 - 80% of recent grads have pursued an advanced degree, I can assure the readers that probably 2/3 of those grads are doing so because they can't find any jobs with their UG degrees (the rest, to their credit, are in med school or a top Top TOP law or biz school - which are still hardly sure bets these days).  If someone comes out of, say, Colby or Haverford with only $20k in loans, but gets their hat handed to them in the job market and consequently trots off to law or biz school where they might come out with $200k in loans, what is the true cost of their undergrad institution?

More college reports just means more college spin

Why should this be mandated? What's the compelling reason for government forcing colleges to provide this information, as opposed to a private entity?

There already exists one such (albeit imperfect) from a private entity - U.S. News College Rankings.

The best reason I can think of is to improve student loan performance - i.e. to try to lower the default rate by giving students more information. I would argue, however, that the Dept. of Education should do this, since they almost certainly have all the relevant information. They can start a website where students can look up the pertinent information for the college of their choice. Don't force the colleges to do it. They will try to spin the results.

Graduation rates miss what college is really about

If treat higher ed. institutions like producers of tangible products than we will lose the true value of these institutions. True academic growth is too difficult to wrap into an easy-to-understand metric. Obviously we are moving towards greater assessment; and I support an informed consumer, but 4-year graduation rates and employment rates are hardly meaningful measures of human development.
A college nutrition label would be a great idea, but it's nearly impossible to build
We pay for all products, reasons Mr. Nemko [the author of the kick-off post], therefore all the things we pay for are products. In slightly more technical terms, he's asserting the simple converse of a universal affirmative -- a major, if common, logical no-no. The comparisons he draws make his reasoning evident: a university education is the equivalent of a tire or a bag of Doritos.

But much of what we spend from day to day goes to pay not for products but for services: a ride across town, a parcel delivered intact and on time, a lawn mowed. These things defy Mr. Nemko's nutritional labeling scheme because they are not interchangeable, mass-produced items. My lawn is a different size and shape, plus it occupies a different terrain, from someone else's lawn. In the same way, my mind is not the same as your mind, so my experience of a particular school will be different than your experience of the same school. Attempting to quantify "how much" of something we got out of that experience devalues what we had onboard when we arrived and the decisions we made while we were there. Not to mention the variability inherent in a large university setting, where one student's experience of a particular course is phenomenal while another student taking the "same" course at the same time from another professor is underwhelmed. Both experiences are relevant to a prospective student, and both are equally "true" as a reflection of what to expect, but neither could be individually quantified, much less their relative contributions to the functioning of an institution as a whole.

So how would we evaluate education as a service? Much as we currently do, I'd imagine: visit campuses, sit in on classes in session, survey programs of interest, chat with current students, talk to graduates new and old, count the cost. Then decide.

At the moment of cost counting, however, I agree with Mr. Nemko. Clear communication of total and itemized cost projections for each student, including anticipated financial aid, should come standard. Some schools are already there. More should be.
I welcome labels like this. My university would do very well if they were used. Our tuition is low ($6k/year), the costs of living here are relatively low, and we create a lot of opportunity, economic and otherwise. This is partly because Fresno is one of the poorest and least well-educated communities in the U.S.A.

Most of my students are going into engineering, K-12 teaching, and the health sciences. Still, whenever I get one interested in an abstruse, competitive field like astronomy, I hand them a copy of "A Ph.D. is Not Enough," by Peter Feibelman. This is because I want my students to know exactly what it is they're getting into, how few jobs there are, and how important it is to have a viable Plan B. (Would-be astronomers can make far more money with less aggravation in computing and energy.) The result is that my students are absolutely sick to the teeth of me telling them this.
Colleges have an obligation to be honest about likely outcomes
Absolutely agree that colleges require 'report cards' - especially in regards to undergraduate and graduate degrees.

In the current system, the existing rankings are largely based on acceptance percentages and the position of the university as an academic institution.  For the vast majority of undergraduates and a significant number of masters students - remaining within academia alone isn't the primary purpose.  Furthermore, given that so many graduates end up with loans that need to be consolidated for periods of 25 to 30 years because there's no possible way for graduates to pay them off in 10 years - the government should take a more proactive stance to ensure that a significant chunk of its population isn't making themselves prime candidates for bankruptcy, minimal savings and heavily dependent on Social Security for retirement  due to choices made between the ages of 19 and 25.

During my undergrad degree, I was looking to transfer to another university having decided to be an anthropology major.  At one department visit in a highly ranked university, I was given a list provided to prospective anthropology majors of all the possibilities an anthropology degree offered.  Amongst the careers offered included professions as disparate as engineer, doctor, performance artist, etc.  No where on that list was it mentioned that such achievements were most likely achieved by anthropology students who double majored or ensured to have all the necessary course work/experience not found in the anthropology department required for such pursuits. 

When Special K wants to tell me that it's a cereal that can help me lose weight - it has to articulate that it's based on eating one serving for breakfast (with skim milk or 2% milk), the same for lunch, and a 'healthy' dinner.  It is Special K's responsibility to say that as opposed to letting me happily believe that if I add a bowl of Special K to my grand slam breakfast that I can lose weight.  And while you might say - well that's as obvious as it should be for an 18 yr old to know that an anthropology degree alone will not put you on the career to medicine, the realities of obesity and unemployed or under-employed graduates with massive student debt speak another story. 

The reality that American universities and the American government needs to come to terms with, is that they are no long just academic institutions.  For most students they are essentially vocational schools in the sense that they provide young people the necessarily skills and qualifications to get jobs.  In that way, the considerations of Nobel prize winners, grant research dollars, published in peer review journals - should mean far far less to the average student, student's family, and lending institution than 'how expensive', 'how likely to get hired', and 'how likely to pay it back' should be.
New Zealand's already doing building a nutrition label for colleges
While not as concise as your Nutrition Label, this is already happening in New Zealand. The government agency responsible for the funding and performance of our higher education system publishes annual educational performance results for every publicly- and privately-owned higher education provider (although all are at least part-funded by tax-payer funds). Go here: http://preview.tinyurl.com/7ab... to see the reports.
What if the students aren't interested in metrics?
Well sure.  To the extent that "college" is a consumer good, something that you can throw some dollars at (borrow them if you have to, serve in the military if you don't see another way to get them) and purchase, a sticker that you can stick on yourself (or, unfortunately and too often these days, stick on your kid's self) that says, "Hire Me To Do X," of course.  Throw up some metrics.  US News and World Report did that, maybe still does, wherever it may continue to exist.  The metrics attracted some beefs, but this could have been worked out, perhaps.

I suspect that in reality, for many, college is important because it's perceived as the admission ticket to the middle class.  (You would think we might want an admission ticket to the upper class, but somehow no one ever admits to belonging to that class.)  If so, metrics won't be of any use.

There are those for whom college is a time to explore, learn and reflect, but they don't care whether this argument keeps droning on as it has been for what, 20 years?  Some, like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, don't even graduate.
The list of so-called 'nutrients' would be never-ending
I won't waste my time arguing that education is not a commodity and students are not passive consumers, since you and so many of your posters are clearly of the mindset that both are true. So, let's look at all of the "nutrients" that need to be listed. "Student-to-teacher ratio," "Tenure-track to adjunct faculty ratio," "Availability of upper division courses/electives in each major," "Staff-to-faculty ratio,"  "Amount spent on library resources (print and electronic) per student," "Amount spent on laboratory equipment/computers/etc., per student," "Placement rate of graduates looking for a job," "Average GRE/LSAT/MCAT, etc. score of graduates," "Acceptance rate of students applying to graduate school," "Sources and amount of funding -- state funding, federal funds, private donations, research and other grants." And let's not forget, "Average number of hours per week students spend in class," and "Average number of hours per week students spend doing homework (including reading the assigned material."
If colleges can't do it, maybe non-profits could
If they do not recognize the substantial benefits of doing so voluntarily, colleges should be required to open up their alumni databases to the Center for Alumni Satisfaction & Outcomes Research (http://www.alumnisatisfactionr... so that that non-profit organization can carry out further surveys with recent college grads and in the process give college intenders, their families, and counselors access to a category of information that is at least as relevant to the consumers of higher education as it is to the purchasers of cars, homes, and other high value products and services.

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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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