Good news for the educated-college-consumer: Know before you go!

One of my goals in reading about higher education is for our household to become better educated consumers before we spend a small fortune to educate three children.

This has led to discussions about:

  • how much money we think it makes sense to spend for a Bachelor’s Degree,
  • how many years it should take for a student to earn a BA,
  • which colleges retain more students,
  • which colleges actually have more students highly engaged in learning, and more.

Those discussions have led us to dig deeply into college websites. Which sometimes leads to frustration.

Yes, much of this information can be found, given enough time, interest, and strength in search skills for a wide variety of websites. Except for that ‘engaged learners’ bit — the Pew Foundation gathers that information and the colleges, for the most part, don’t share the results.

Since we still have to perform a lot of our own research it would be handy if much of the basic information were readily available in a clear, easy to compare format.

Apparently the White House thinks so, too, and so does the New York Times, which endorsed the government’s proposal in today’s editorial:  What College Students Need to Know.

Congress has taken some steps to mandate greater transparency from colleges. The 1990 Student Right to Know Act, for example, required colleges and universities that receive federal aid to disclose graduation rates. And the 2008 Higher Education Opportunity Act required schools to offer a way for consumers to determine actual costs after student aid is taken into account.

But many colleges have done a poor job of complying with federal disclosure rules, and much of the available information is not in one place. The administration’s new efforts would enforce reporting requirements and provide some new tools.

I wrote about one of those tools,  the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau‘s proposed Know Before You Owe worksheet, here.

College Value Profile. Click to enlarge.

The other tool the editorial endorses is the Department of Education’s proposed College Scorecard, which can be read about here. You can download a pdf of the scorecard from that link; here’s a quick screenshot.

Also reported today, in the Chronicle of Higher Education, is more disclosure on Virginia colleges and the jobs their graduates find. Take a look at Taking Some of the Guesswork out of the Value of College Question, written by Jeff Selingo.

Of course, not all colleges or majors are created equal. And it’s nearly impossible for consumers to get any information about how much a graduate in a specific major from a particular university earns. That’s probably one of the best measures of the return on investment in higher education, but, as with so many other tools that would allow consumers to make bottom-line comparisons, colleges are loath to share such information. In the absence of data, it’s easier for colleges to sell the dream of higher education at any cost.

Like politicians elsewhere, Virginia lawmakers have heard such complaints from parents and decided to do something about it. Over the last two years, the state legislature has passed two bills that, beginning this spring, will give families access to a key component in answering the value-of-college question: median salaries for the graduates of hundreds of academic programs across every public institution and some private colleges in the state.

The public database, which is expected in April, will allow students and parents to look at potential earnings over a six-year period in several ways. They can look at a specific program to see median earnings by type of degree (a certificate vs. a two-year degree in information technology, for instance) or across institutions (an English degree at James Madison University vs. the same degree at George Mason University), or majors across a campus.

Read the full article for some important caveats and for Mr. Selingo’s prediction that other states will see the need to follow Virginia’s lead.

For Mod Squad Pete, Julie, and Linc to create their own post-college opportunities, one of their best shots is to be highly engaged students in college. They can control that part of the equation. They should be able to access information on the pieces of the equation they cannot control, such as:

  • how will a college support their efforts both for learning and for career planning,
  • will it be possible to graduate in four years, given course and pre-req schedules,
  • where does higher tuition go — into the classroom, another luxury dorm, or the Chancellor’s paycheck,
  • how many classes are taught by full professors, how many by grad students, and how many by adjunct,
  • and — given the recent news about Claremont-McKenna — how honest the college is with any of this data?

I’d love to get the basic info either of these proposed reports offers. That would free up time to dig deeper on some of our other questions.

Do you think these reports would help? Please let me know what you think in the comments below.

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Filed under Paying for College, Reports

4 responses to “Good news for the educated-college-consumer: Know before you go!

  1. bowtieadmission

    You are looking for a “no-spin” profile, rather than those sext profiles colleges put out to describe the fabulous new class enrolled. We have one in the works right now that will include things like the prez’s salary (and the highest paid faculty member), grad and retention rates by all of the important cohorts, % of classes taught by f-t faculty, % of faculty who advise, how each .01 is spent, how students finance an Augustana education, etc, ave net cost for the degree over the course of the last three year, top 10 overlaps, etc. We are going to provide this information, but I doubt others will, which makes the effort a greater challenge. I think you are asking the right questions, though.

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