Do Colleges Need a 'Calorie Count'?

How a mandatory "fact box" -- like a nutrition label for higher education -- would help applicants understand which college is right for them

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In 2011, more American students enrolled in college than ever before. Many of them, if not most of them, will not graduate. Community colleges have graduation rates as low as seven percent. And some four-year colleges aren't much better. The University of the District of Columbia graduates only 12 percent of its students within six years, and Chicago State University graduates only 14 percent.

If you didn't know this, don't feel too bad. Neither do most college students - even as they fork over tuition dollars to attend institutions from which they'll never graduate.

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News about serious flaws in the quality and productivity of our colleges hasn't made it to the most important group of constituents - college-bound students. A student can still apply to college and invest thousands of dollars of their earnings in tuition - not to mention thousands of state and federal dollars - without ever knowing his or her likelihood of finishing or the amount of debt the student is likely to incur.

This may sound like a problem that's limited to low-selectivity institutions like community colleges or for-profit universities like the University of Phoenix. But the need for better information about the outcomes of educational programs goes all the way up the educational ladder. For example, without accurate and timely information about employment outcomes, students who buy into the law school dream of a $150,000 salary are finding themselves with $150,000 in debt and only temporary employment.

There's a simple way to help students understand the risks inherent in their college choices: better information. Although the federal government and organizations that promote college opportunity already make information available to students, most students don't see it or can't find it because it's hiding in government websites and arcane databases.

The secret to better information disclosure is the same as the secret to real estate: location, location, location.

There's plenty of information available about colleges -- if you know where to look for it. The federal government collects a ton of college data each year, and it makes many relevant pieces available on its College Navigator website. But when students apply to college, they typically rely on only a few sources of information: teachers, guidance counselors, friends and neighbors, and the colleges themselves.

That's why it's important to make basic information about colleges available to students in places where they cannot miss it. The information should appear on college websites, enrollment forms, and financial aid paperwork like the FAFSA.

Like the nutritional facts required on food packaging or the calorie counts popping up on restaurant menus, students need a similar "box of facts." The box should include data that addresses three basic questions:

1) What are my chances of finishing this program?

2) What will it cost me?

3) What kind of returns (income/employment) should I expect from this program?

The data that answers these questions - facts like graduation rate, average net price, employment rate, and average student loan debt - will not dictate a best-fit college, just as the calorie count on a menu does not decide whether pancakes or Eggs Benedict fit best with your satisfaction or dietary goals. But basic college data can give a student a rough idea of whether she will be able to achieve the basic goal of completing an educational program and the costs of doing so, just as a calorie count gives me a very rough idea of how fattening a meal will be.

Colleges have not volunteered to post these college facts on their materials, because they don't think it helps them to inform students of the successes and failures of their graduates. But the federal government has an interest in ensuring that students choose colleges from which they are likely to graduate and secure gainful employment.

The country's economic stability depends on maintaining a workforce that has the skills to compete in a job market that increasingly requires postsecondary credentials. And the value of the billions of federal dollars invested in grants and loans to students depends on how wisely students spend those dollars. Federal legislators should require colleges to take this simple step toward making their outcomes more transparent to prospective students.

Colleges often protest that information disclosures like this do not present an accurate picture of their institutions. But given the opacity of college outcomes and quality at this point, it's hard to see how more information could do anything but improve students' ability to make good decisions about their education. And if colleges want to give even more information to paint a more accurate picture, I certainly would not stand in their way.