Transparency and College Choice

Bridget Terry Long, a professor of education and economics at Harvard, argues that we should give prospective college students and their families better information on such matters as loan burdens, graduation rates, average class size, average aid package, salaries earned and positions held by recent graduates, and alumni satisfaction.

Bridget Terry Long, a professor of education and economics at Harvard, argues that we should give prospective college students and their families better information on such matters as loan burdens, graduation rates, average class size, average aid package,  salaries earned and positions held by recent graduates, and alumni satisfaction.

This surfeit of information can end up overwhelming rather than enlightening students who — particularly if they come from low-income backgrounds and are first-generation college-goers — are some of the least equipped to navigate the complex choices facing them, she says. As a result, these students can find themselves selecting a college that is too expensive and cannot deliver on its promises. “When things are complicated, people often make erratic decisions or the easiest decisions, which might not be the best decisions,” said Long. In her paper, she cites a 2009 study by Public Agenda and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that suggested that two-thirds of college dropouts chose a college on the basis of location.

During Wednesday’s call, Long offered an example of how she hoped her proposal would help vulnerable and poorly informed future students. She said such a student might be inclined to attend a nearby institution that floods the airwaves and plasters local billboards with advertisements with lofty promises, but has a 10 percent graduation rate. Another institution a half-mile away that boasts a rate of 80 percent would be a better choice, she said. At the same time, Long stresses in her paper that she is not singling out for-profit institutions, some of which have come under fire for the sorts of practices she described during the phone call. “This proposal is not targeted at any subset of educational institutions,” she writes. “Competition and increased public scrutiny is likely to increase outcomes across all institutions by putting pressure on poor institutions to do a better job.”

Long proposes that the federal government, which already collects many of the data, is best suited to function as a clearinghouse for the information she wants made available. It would enact what she envisions as a three-step process. The first would hook potential students — in partnership with other government agencies, and social service and employment organizations — with a snapshot of colleges, their true cost, and the success of their students. The second step would provide a more extensive array of information and include a list of colleges that meet various criteria. The third would allow students to customize their search even further to help make a decision.

I haven’t seen her study and have no idea what all this would cost, let alone whether it would achieve its intended goals.  But I can testify that I had no idea what I was doing when I was making college choices a quarter century ago, and was heavily influenced by geographic proximity and cost.

FILED UNDER: Education, Quick Takes
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. john personna says:

    This is pretty much what I’ve been asking for.  Well, actually more that colleges should size their own programs using those same guidelines.  And definitely don’t let high cost, low return, departments troll for students nor try to save themselves with inflated general education requirements.

  2. Drew says:

    Heh.  Do they have a lot of hot chicks?