A Mandatory 'Report Card' for Every College? Not So Fast

By Derek Thompson

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. You responded on our site, on college discussion boards, and in our 1,000-person online poll from Toluna.

Earlier this week, we rounded up the first batch of excellent comments. Here comes round two. Keep the answers coming in the comment section, and we hope to publish the best in another batch this weekend. Marty Nemko will weigh in with his take on college report cards on Monday.

Student are investors, and they deserve a financial road map

To those who think that a college education is an invaluable, mind-expanding experience, I would counter that it's an extremely bad idea to take out tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in loans for an experience that will expand your mind unless you have a very clear idea of how to pay that loan back.  Would you mortgage your house to fund a trip to an Ashram in the Himalayas?  To go on a Hajj to Mecca?  To take a pilgrimage to St Peter's Square?  I should hope not - as valuable as those experiences may be in a spiritual sense, you'd be an idiot to burden yourself with onerous, undischargable debts to experience them.

To those asking why some organization such as US News or a non-profit can't find, organize and distribute this information, I would counter that these organizations don't have a legal means to prevent outright fraudulent information from being provided.  If the government was requiring this, they'd be able to mandate clear, accurate information, with real punishments for organizations that screw it up.

Somehow I recently got on some sort of spam list for for-profit colleges.  I finished college several years ago and am now in professional school.  I'm certainly not looking to dump that to start something else.  Nonetheless, I was deluded with calls and emails from dozens of different schools eager to tell me about how many student loans I was eligible for.  I looked into a few of these places out of curiosity.  Many of them appear to essentially be scams to get student loan money from the government in return for neither particularly educating nor providing worthwhile skills to their gullible students, who end up saddled with debt.

Sure, if you're willing and able to pay for college out of pocket, and you view it as simply a mind-expanding self-improving project to better yourself, you have no need to see a financial breakdown of what's happened to other students who've traveled that path.  But if you're taking out loans (which makes it something of an investment) backed by the federal government to pay for school, I don't think it's too much to ask that the federal government require that school to issue you a prospectus describing the past performance of this investment for others.

Colleges should open up their books for students

I'd rather see them publicly announce summaries of their budgets.  As in, how much is going into salaries, how much is going into providing financial aid, how much is used in buying equipment, and how much is used to buy real estate/political clout/other things colleges should not be spending that much money on.

Colby College responds

Debt is a key factor in the case for the college report card, which specifically mentions
debt incurred by students at places like Colby College. In fact, Colby shares these concerns about debt, which is why we offer grants, not loans, in financial aid packages.

You can't measure college with dollars signs

If education is only based on future earnings, we will become continually collectively less educated, and this will continue over time. Greed does not breed intellectual curiosity, scientific pursuit, nor literary acumen. If your sole purpose is to make money, you're just not curious. You're avaricious.  Basing an educational system on monetary gain is hopeless. Basing an economics system that rewards intellectual achievement is wise.

A college report card wouldn't be useful to all students, but it would help many

I don't think it's crazy at all to think that university students should be there to learn. I do, with some continuing hesitation, believe in the mission of the liberal arts. However, I think it can be taken too far--and that is what people are concerned about.

It all depends on what students you're thinking of. I don't look askance at a business undergrad who has no illusions that she's at university because she has to be in preparation for her MBA. Same with those preparing for law school or med school... and as they are there with clear motives and know they are headed for a professional degree, I can somewhat sympathize with being irritated at many of the common general education requirements. You can make a 'rounder, fuller person' argument for a Great Books or European History survey course, but nowadays such things are getting harder to find... a student nowadays is more likely to find course catalogs full of courses with titles like 'The Mestizo Woman in the Literary Mind' or 'The Recontextualizing of the Polish-Lithuanian Body.' Fascinating stuff, usually, but too narrow and too political for the general liberal arts mission.

The other side of the pendulum is the student studying for a degree in, say, East Asian and Asian Diaspora Studies or LGBT Studies (or, well, any department the name of which is 'Somethingsomething Studies').  I applaud the pursuit of pure knowledge, but exactly what job does that qualify you for, beyond another 5-8 years of student debt for grad school in the same department and then a shot--a long shot--at a professorship in the same department? The most common job out of school for my dear friends with humanities degrees has been... receptionist.

Lurking between these two poles are kids who don't have any place in the university at all. They aren't pursuing a degree with any career in mind, nor for any love of learning, but just because someone somewhere along the way told them that they had to go to college, that education debt was 'good debt,' or some other variety of nonsense. (To my mind, the only good debt is debt you didn't incur.) These are the kids I really do feel sorry for; years of nondischargeable debt, no marketable skills, and the opportunity cost of having foregone four or ten years of earning capacity.

Great idea, difficult execution

1. I think it will be difficult to get figures. for example lets say you want to know how many grads of a particular school got jobs? Well if they got a job at Burger King thats a job isnt it? So it would be hard to word the survey.

2. Jobs come and go. For example just 5 years ago their was a teacher shortage. So students flooded that market. What it would come down to is students being always worried about that years ranking and we dont want them chasing majors.

Dont get me wrong, it's still a good idea. Yet it will have problems.

BTW, what I would like to see is having college professors graded, and paid accordingly, on how well they actually can teach. A proff might hold a Noble prize but that doesnt mean he can teach. Colleges need to develop the BEST instructors.

 Aren't students also responsible to watch out for their investment, "report card" or no?

I think the one thing all of this misses is the student's responsibility to their own education. Simply taking out loans without a plan is a bad decision and pointing solely to the trillion dollar student debt is misleading. Neither fully address the problem. 

1) The Trillion Dollar student loan debt is disproportionally represented by students entering "For-Profit" colleges, those are your online schools such as University of Phoenix, Cappella, DeVry, and others. Those students attending "For-Profit" schools disproportionally leave school unemployed and hence default on their loans. Those are also the schools that drive up the on-average cost of college. For instance a student attending a University of Phoenix is likely to pay more per term than a student attending an in-state community college or state public institution. 

2) College is a mix of public good and educational experience. Students need to be wise consumers of the product. Often students want the convenience of college and pay for that convenience at the expense of their own future. Not every student should attend a four-year university and not every university is created equal. Also, students share in their success. The time students are willing to put in will impact their future successes in a career. 

3) I am tired of this argument against higher education. I often here people throw names like Steve Jobs, who did not graduate college, or Mark Zuckerberg, who did not graduate college, out as an attempt to diminish the importance of Higher Ed. I like to point out that while those two, and countless others, did not graduate from their institution the attendance at their higher education institution helped spur, and in Zuckerberg's case, became the impetus for their creation. Hence their creations were a product of the chance to pursue their passions in an educational setting. These highly successful individuals serve as illustrations of the importance of higher education. 

4) Unless you are paying for a name, college education still does not cost over $100,000 for a B.A. or a B.S. Public institutions have sacrificed pay to faculty and staff in an attempt to keep costs low. A student can attend their in-state public institution and receive an excellent education for an affordable cost. Schools such as Colorado State University, Oregon State University, and many others cost a reasonable amount. Colorado State University cost $8,000 for a year of  full time tuition, if one attends for 4 years that is $32,000. If one were to spend the first two years receiving an associates degree from a community college the total cost of a bachelors would be $20,000. Now, this does not include living expenses. But to put that in perspective, after a complicated search you can find that University of Phoenix charges $44,000 for the same degree, again that does not include living expenses or fees (which are more at University of Phoenix), and is priced at the in-state residence rate.

5) If you include living expenses, there are a plethora of on-campus jobs that helps students build skills, pay for room and board, and provide enough for living expenses. Even if you pay out of pocket say $40,000 and that helps you get a job starting at $30,000 your college education has paid for itself in just over a year of salary. So I would ask when you look at the job you get and the salary you have, it took you four years to incur the debt and only a year and a few months to make that total cost in a salary. Now, it takes a lot longer to pay it all back, of course, but to say that college wasn't worth it when you make the cost of four years of tuition in one year is a stretch.  

I think the collegiate system needs some changing and tweaking. But I think overall our higher education institutions have produced and continue to produce some very great things for the US and the entire world. They continue to innovate and collect great minds together to help solve problems for the public good. They also provide a reasonably inexpensive way for those in poverty to work their way out of poverty. I believe that there are only two ways out of poverty, education or the military. It is sad that we continue to cut both, while simultaneously cutting welfare.

Don't blame the schools, blame the students

The problem is far more fundamental than the availability of "report cards."  The information is out there; I certainly had access to it when I was in high school.  I hear too often the excuse "but they're just kids and they don't understand what they're getting into!"  If that is the case, the problem is that the students aren't even thinking to seek out this information when investing--in this case, in 4-5 years of their lives for school in a major and going into debt to do so. 

That kind of information needs to be ingrained in the student before even entering college.  Only then will education-investment concepts take hold, and the information in the report cards be relevant.

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