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
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.