How to fix our broken system of ranking colleges


President Obama speaks about college financial aid at Henninger High School in Syracuse, N.Y., in August. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

Every year, high school students sit down with their parents, sift through college rankings, make campus visits, and try to figure out if they can afford to pay — or to borrow — the money needed for college. Most often they make the decision on a college while knowing very little about what that institution's graduates actually do after they leave school.

At a time when student loan debt is growing rapidly and regulators are warning that it prevents graduates from reaching other financial milestones, some college advocates are upset about how how hard it is to find information on student debt levels and default rates for specific schools. Currently, families can find out what the average default rate is for students of a particular school, but there is no way of knowing what major those students chose or if they even graduated.

Comparing default rates, student advocates argue, can help families answer two important questions: How much have students had to borrow to afford that school and how much did they make after graduating. If students find that the graduates of a program they're considering are struggling to make payments, they might still stick with the major they had in mind, but opt to go somewhere less expensive.

"When you're talking about a school that’s got enormous default rates and low completion rates and high levels of debt, it’s just not a good school to go to," said Rory O'Sullivan, deputy director at Young Invincibles, a nonprofit group focusing on the economic issues facing young adults that is calling for tighter regulations on for-profit schools.

Good news: We'll soon have some better data

Now there's a push to change that. The Department of Education will stop accepting public comments Tuesday about its recently unveiled " gainful employment" regulations for career training programs — otherwise known as vocational programs. The rules would require schools to disclose more information about what programs cost and how much debt students graduate with. The regulations would also restrict the amount of federal aid their students can get if too many graduates of that program fall behind on their loans or if their loan payments take up too large of a chunk of their earnings.

In August, President Obama announced a new  college ratings system  that will factor in cost and student debt. The White House also made a push last year to give families better access to information through the College Scorecard, an online tool that lists data on employment, default rates and graduation rates for each college.

But there's still a ton we don't know about which colleges are best serving students

But some researchers and education advocates say the new rules don't go far enough. While the information being compiled on career training programs is exactly the kind of information they say should be available for families comparing colleges, advocates say that information should be made available for all college degrees, not just vocational programs.

"It's crazy that we don’t have this information available to students," says Amy Laitinen, deputy director of higher education for the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank. "It’s basically this black box where schools are saying trust us and write us a check."

As of now, some schools share data on the types of jobs their graduates land but they don't all make it easy to find, education pros say. Some schools gather the information by sending surveys out to alumni, but critics argue those surveys have very low response rates and the people who are most likely to participate are more likely to have extreme opinions about their schools.

Some states, like California and Virginia, also compile detailed debt and employment information, but they're the minority. And those numbers often don't count people who left the state after graduation, says Andrew Gillen, a senior researcher at American Institutes for Research. "We really need to be able to compare those numbers to numbers at other schools," Gillen said. "So if we only have it for vocational programs it’s not going to have the context that it needs."


Loan default rates for students attending career training programs, by type of school.

Such data on default rates can say a lot about the kinds of jobs graduates are able to land after school as well as the financial well being of the students attending that school. For example, a study released last year by the Education Sector at American Institutes for Research found 265 schools in the U.S. and Puerto Rico where students were more likely to default on their debt than they were to graduate. Some of those programs had high default rates because many of the students who attended came from low income families, said Gillen, who authored the study. But some probably struggled to land jobs after finishing those programs, he says.

Prospective students can already track down some of this financial information through the College Navigator tool offered by the U.S. Department of Education, the Institute of Education Sciences and the National Center for Education Statistics. On that site, people can look up the graduate rates and the default rates for people who went to that school, but they can't find the default rates for a particular program, as the department of education is doing for gainful employment programs. Curious consumers also have no way of knowing what share of the people defaulting actually graduated and what share dropped out, Gillen said.

That said, it's worth stating that there is more to college than the promise of a job. People walk away with skills and experiences that can be life changing, but may not always be easy to quantify and may not always lead to a job. But even some of the people who take that view say it wouldn't hurt to arm prospective college students with a little more knowledge. "If you want to major in art, then that’s fine," says Anthony Carnevale, professor and director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. "People ought to at least have the information — then they can make their own choices."

Jonnelle Marte is a reporter covering personal finance. She was previously a writer for MarketWatch and the Wall Street Journal.
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