The Case for a College Report Card

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What's an Ivy education really worth, which schools are dropout factories, and what major gives you the best shot at a well-paying job? A College Report Card would help us answer these questions and more

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This week's Working it Out question was: Should the government require each college to post on its home page a rigorous report card that would enable prospective students to more wisely select a college?

You weighed in with more than 200 comments here at The Atlantic and another 1,000 votes through our online poll via Toluna QuickSurvey. On the yes side, it was argued, for example, that a college education's huge cost, time, and importance justifies more accountability. Those who voted no argued, for example, that the availability of U.S. News rankings, college guides, and other consumer information makes government intrusion unnecessary. Here's my two cents.

Fully 36 percent of college students "did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning" over four years of college. That is but one of the many chisels that consumer advocates have taken to the stony veneer of the higher education marketing/PR/lobbying machine. Our higher education system claims to be the envy of the world, invoking misleading statistics such as "college graduates earn a million dollars more over their lifetime."

This statistic, and others like it, form the keystone of the argument for college. But it is misleading for two big reasons. First, the pool of college graduates is brighter, more motivated, and better connected than the pool of those who didn't go to college or dropped out. You could have locked many college graduates in a closet for four years and they'd earn above-average wages. And if they weren't at college, they would have been learning in the real world, for example, on-the-job, self-selected learning, and in exploring, including travel.

Second, the million-dollar statistic is retrospective. Today, a far higher percentage of Americans have college degrees at the same time as college costs have skyrocketed, and employers are part-timing, temping, offshoring, and automating jobs that used to be done by college graduates. Today and especially tomorrow, a degree, especially one in the arts, humanities, or social sciences from a non-elite college, may well yield employment no better than could have been obtained with a mere high school diploma. Indeed, 60 percent of the increase in college graduates from 1992 to 2008 work in such jobs. And that assumes you graduate. Only 57% of college entrants complete their degree, even after six years! And what about graduate school? Don't get me started. If you're in the mood, read, for example, this. Or this.

THE CRISIS IN COLLEGE, INC.

Higher education, College, Inc., like all businesses, wants money. So here are some things it too often does, each of which shortchanges students and explains the shoddy student outcomes above:

• From Harvard to Hawaii, most large research universities' main sources of profit are research grants and other government and corporate payments, so that's where they invest as much money as possible.

• Such institutions typically spend frugally in educating students, a cost line-item. So, for example, they heavily use lecture hall-sized classes and online courses, taught too often by professors hired and promoted mainly on how much research they crank out, not on how much their undergraduates grow. Indeed, to my knowledge, few universities promote professors, even in part, on how much their students grow.

It's remarkable how easily we accept universities' self-serving assertion that professors who focus on research make better teachers than those whose main focus is teaching.

And for small classes, universities often use part-time, low-wage graduate students or adjuncts, which allows them to avoid paying benefits. That is in hypocritical contradiction to the rhetoric spewed in their courses about the importance of treating workers well.

• Colleges know that their customer base is not very price-sensitive: Many parents want to avoid appearing cheap with their children's college education, and the public perceives that if you charge more, you get more. So colleges can get away with raising prices well beyond the inflation rate. Or more subtle, many colleges convert discounts (which they prefer to call "grants") into loans, which, of course, must be paid back, with interest.

• To minimize price-sensitivity, colleges spend money that could have been invested on educating students, on powerful lobbying efforts to prod the government and private donors to increase financial aid so colleges can use other people's money to pay what some students and parents wouldn't.

• Colleges also spend on PR to try to manipulate the media into parroting such deceptive mantras as, "More financial aid makes college more affordable" instead of the less obvious truth that more financial aid allows colleges to raise their prices on full-paying customers even more. Today, the published price, including all the hidden expenses beyond tuition, room & board, of four years at brand-name private colleges can approach a quarter million dollars!

WHY COLLEGES OWE US MORE

We all have a stake in this. Of course, if we're trying to select a college, we need to know more than the college name's cachet, its students' average SAT score, and information that can be obtained from the colleges' Madison-Avenue inspired websites and tour guides, and the U.S. News rankings. Currently, we fight to find the right college with one arm tied behind our back. That's particularly problematic because a college education may be our most time-consuming, potentially important, and -- given today's declining home prices -- most expensive expenditure. For example, nearly all of the many colleges' websites I've visited hide the true full, post-financial aid, four- and five-year cost of attendance--we don't even know what a degree will likely cost us, let alone how much we're likely to benefit.

Our collective stake is high also because we the taxpayer pay a fortune in subsidizing colleges, and not just public colleges. As one Atlantic commenter, Unemployed_Northeastern, pointed out, the taxpayers have funded--at private and public colleges--more than $1 trillion in nondischargeable, government-guaranteed student loans, So it's not surprising that the Occupy movement has made the College Industrial Complex one of its targets.

Beyond our individual concerns, a poorly educated country leads to a poorly functioning country.

THE SOLUTION: A COLLEGE REPORT CARD

Just as the federal government requires each drug, new home, tire, and packaged food to provide consumer information, government should mandate that each college post, linked from its home page, at least seven items of consumer information. Consider it a "College Report Card."

As you'll see, this information (or a variant for a Graduate School Report Card) would be more useful than the U.S News ranking, which has been the subject of persistent criticism. One of my concerns with the U.S. News product is that it doesn't directly consider what may be the most important factor: student growth, for example, in critical thinking. Since universities have been caught and more accused of fudging data they report to U.S. News, a small percentage of the College Report Cards would be third-party audited.

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Marty Nemko holds a Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley specializing in the evaluation of innovation. His columns have appeared in the Washington Post and San Francisco Chronicle, and his sixth book, just published, is How to Do Life: What They Didn't Teach You in School. More

Marty Nemko was called "The Bay Area's Best Career Coach" by the San Francisco Bay Guardian. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley and subsequently taught in its graduate school. His columns and features have appeared in U.S. News, the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and San Francisco Chronicle. The archive of his hundreds of published articles, his blog, plus chapters from his book, Cool Careers for Dummies, plus mp3s of his KALW-FM (NPR-San Francisco) show are on www.martynemko.com.
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