The Case for a College Report Card

By Marty Nemko

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

615 college graduation hire.jpg

Reuters

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.

As some readers pointed out, the sum of college education's value cannot be reduced to seven items. Still I believe even just those seven provide great value without overwhelming the prospective students or imposing undue demands on the colleges.

Commenters asked if it might be wiser for the U.S. Office of Education or an independent entity such as Consumers Union to collect the data. The problem is that the cost and logistics, for example, of the student testing would be prohibitive; it's far easier for the college to do it. I could however endorse the taxpayer subsidizing or even paying its cost. Even if the colleges were to assume all costs and responsibility, the burden would be small relative to the societal benefit: Most colleges already collect much of the Report Card data for internal use or for posting (not broken down by high school record or family income and thus of limited value) on websites such as College Navigator, which are visited far less often than colleges' own websites.

Some ask whether the six regional accrediting agencies should create and monitor the Report Card. Alas, participating in accreditation is voluntary and the volunteer colleges must approve the accreditation process--the fox is guarding the henhouse. That's why efforts by presidents of accreditation commissions to mandate a rigorous, very public report card have, to date, been unsuccessful. I must, in fairness, however, acknowledge that one of those agencies, the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, is taking slow steps forward. It has recently proposed that all its institutions publish (albeit not on each institution's website but on a site that few college shoppers will know about) the visiting team report and "assurance" that its bachelor degree graduates have bachelor-level competence in writing, critical thinking, oral communication, quantitative skills, and information literacy. Some of WASC's member institutions are balking even at that.

Whoever mandates it, requiring each college to prominently post a substantive report card would empower prospective students to more wisely choose a college. Even more important, it would shine a light on what's behind the ivy and thus finally embarrass deficient colleges into, for example, reallocating resources from shrubs, sports, showcase buildings, sterile research, and porcine administrations to investments more likely to transform students into excellent thinkers, professionals, and citizens. That may ultimately be America's best hope for its future. And it may finally enable higher education to become the national treasure it claims to be.

WHAT A COLLEGE REPORT CARD WOULD LOOK LIKE

Each of the following would be listed alongside those of the institution's three "overlap" schools: the schools to which its applicants most often also apply.

Growth in critical thinking and writing. Each year, at each institution, a random sample of 150 freshmen and 150 seniors would take the Collegiate Learning Assessment, an instrument many consider the best of its kind. To ensure the examinees give full effort, their scores would be posted on their transcript. Each college's report card would state its average freshman score and senior score on both critical thinking and writing.

Of course, there is far more to a college education than can be measured on one test, and institutions should be encouraged to assess more, but this offers excellent benefit for the effort expended. Requiring institutions to publicly report such data is far from a radical idea. For example, California requires all K-12 schools to post their school's academic achievement scores. A version for professional graduate schools, for example, law, medical, or veterinary schools might use professional licensure rate, adjusted for LSAT/MCAT/VSAT score.

The results of the most recent alumni satisfaction survey. Most colleges already conduct alumni (or at least student) satisfaction surveys but don't make the results public. Because those surveys vary widely on the College Report Card, colleges would be required to report only three results likely to exist on nearly all such surveys: the average rating of academic, non-academic (extracurricular, housing, location,) and overall experience at the institution. For example: Academic: 3.2, Non-Academic 2.7, Overall, 3.1. To avoid institutions inflating their scores by anchoring their top score with a label of just "satisfactory," colleges would be required to anchor the questions on a 5-point scale from "poor" to excellent."

The accreditation visiting team report and Association action. The vast majority of American colleges are accredited by one of the six regional accrediting associations. As part of the accreditation process, each institution conducts a detailed self-study that is followed by a multi-day onsite visit by a team of peers from other institutions. That team writes a report on the institution's strengths and weaknesses.. That plus the Association's action on accreditation would be posted as part of the College Report Card.

The full projected four- and five-year cost of attendance (subtracting cash financial aid), broken down by family income and assets. On many if not most colleges' websites, it's difficult or even impossible to find even the one-year projected cost-of attendance, even unadjusted for family income and assets. The College Report Card would include that adjusted figure for five years. Years 2 through 5 would be estimated by adding the percentage that the college increased its price in the previous four years. The reason for requiring a five- rather than four-year estimate is that, at most colleges, many students require more than four years to graduate, and cash aid often drops significantly after year 4. Not that U.S News nor any other college guide I'm aware of provides this important information.

Crime statistics. The Clery Act requires all institutions to collect crime prevalence data on and surrounding campus. The College Report Card would include that data.

Four and six-year graduation rates, broken down by high school record. Some institutions do quite well with weak students; others do not. Breaking down the average by high school record (weighted GPA + SAT) would make clearer the likely graduation rate for a particular student. However, prospective students should not, in picking a college, give undue weight to graduation rate, even if disaggregated. That's because an institution can jigger a high graduation rate by lowering standards. For example, I know of an institution at which administrators meet with faculty members who give a failing grade to an above-average percentage of students. Rather than praising them for their high standards, the message subtly is, "See if you can give a passing grade to more students."

The percentage of graduates that are professionally employed within one year of graduation, broken down by major. The institution's alumni survey, mentioned earlier, usually contains that or similar-enough information. I am agnostic on whether the institution should also report the average salary. Money does matter, especially with college costing so much, but I fear that too many students would give that undue weight.

_______

"Working It Out"

1. Do Christmas trees belong in the workplace?

2. When is a so-called staycation a better choice than a vacation?

3. Do colleges need a consumer's report card?

><

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2012/01/the-case-for-a-college-report-card/251482/