College needs a consumer-warning label


A graduate points out her cap at the end of the commencement as Catholic University held its 122nd Commencement on Saturday May 14, 2011. (Dayna Smith/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)
November 29, 2011

Marty Nemko, holds a Ph.D. specializing in the evaluation of innovation from the University of California, Berkeley and subsequently taught in its graduate school. This is the fourth in a series on thinking outside of the box when it comes to the nation’s leading challenges.

We have, for decades, accepted that graduates earn $1 million more than non-graduates over their lifetime. That statistic is misleading for a number of reasons. For example, it’s retrospective to an era when only the best and brightest went to college and employers couldn’t offshore jobs.

Those days are over.

Higher education has recently been the subject of a spate of reports finding that students benefit little from their college experience. It began with a 2006 report by the Secretary of Education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education and has accelerated with such books as: Higher Education?, The Five Year Party, Crisis on Campus, and Academically Adrift, the last of which found that 36 percent of college students did not show a significant gain in critical thinking, complex reasoning, or writing in four years of college.

Today, assuming you graduate and learned anything, your employment prospects are uncertain. Slightly more than half, 53 percent, of college graduates are employed full-time, according to a 2011 study from Rutgers University’s John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development. Meanwhile their average salary between 2009 and 2010 was $27,000 — barely enough to either pay back their student loans or to live on — but probably not both. Another 21 percent are in graduate school. And almost half of the employed are working in jobs they could have qualified for straight out of high school. The numbers are even worse for the many weak students colleges now admit. An analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data by the Chronicle of Higher Education indicates that 60 percent of the increase in the number of college graduates from 1992 to 2008 worked on jobs barely requiring a high school diploma.

Many college students who got into and graduated from a designer-label institution are doing well. But many others who bit the college apple can’t be blamed for feeling deceived by the marketing machine: brochures, Web sites, targeted emails, and spiels by tour guides and admission “counselors” (salespeople) that hide the aforementioned facts. Many college Web sites make it difficult to find the sticker price, let alone the difference between the likely four-year cost in cash and the loan- or financial-aid-adjusted cost of attendance.

Many college graduates and especially dropouts might reasonably wonder if they might have been better off forgoing college and instead getting an apprenticeship or on-the-job training, perhaps at the elbow of a successful, ethical entrepreneur and investing the fortune they would have spent on college in blue-chip stocks. Indeed, in a GfK Roper Public Affairs & Media poll, nearly half of Americans polled felt college students, at both public and private colleges, were not getting their money’s worth.

I propose that the government mandate that, one click from the homepage of each college’s Web site, there be critical consumer information — a College Report Card. After all, we require a report card to be molded into each tire’s sidewall, packaged food to bear a nutrition information label, home sellers to provide pages of disclosures to prospective buyers, drug manufacturers to present data to the FDA, and K-12 schools to post achievement scores and other consumer information. Why not require the same of colleges, which because of the decline in housing prices, can cost as much as a home, not to mention four to six years of time and opportunity cost? It is ironic that colleges, which sell one of the most important products, are among the least accountable to the public.

The College Report Card should list only six items, most of which, colleges already know but don’t make public:

— The projected four-year cost of attendance minus the amount of cash financial aid and broken down by family income and assets. Colleges were required by the federal government to post net price calculators by the fall of 2011. But they are not required to be posted off of the college or university’s homepage.

— Freshman-to-senior growth in written and oral communication, critical thinking, mathematical reasoning, and information literacy broken down by major and by student high school record. To reduce the burden on an institution, only a random sample of students need be tested. The results would be posted on students’ transcripts to ensure they give their best effort.

— Four, six, and eight-year graduation rates, broken down by major and student’s high-school record.

— The results of the institution’s most recent student satisfaction survey.

— The most recent accreditation agency’s action and summary of its visiting team report.

— The percent of graduates that, within one year of graduation, hold a job requiring a college degree, broken down by major and by high school record.

Students would enter their high school grades, SAT/ACT score, and planned major, click, and their personalized version of the college’s report card grades would appear.

To ensure integrity, an outside entity would randomly audit the reported data.

The College Report Card is different from, for example, U.S. News & World Report’s rating system. The latter focuses heavily on a college’s reputation, which is affected by an institution’s research productivity, size, and even age. The U.S. News ranking pays little attention to the quality of the undergraduate experience. U.S. News also heavily weighs colleges’ self-reported class size and faculty-student ratio. Those are often misleading because they include professors who rarely teach undergraduates and classes that few students take, such as Intermediate Sanskrit, which may have five students while commonly taken intro courses like Intro to Biology have hundreds.

U.S. News also considers faculty salary, which is often based on how much research money the faculty member brings in, not on their ability to be transformational teachers of undergraduates. Research productivity is often inversely correlated with commitment to and excellence in teaching undergraduates. Student selectivity is also weighted heavily, while the value-added component, that is, how much students grow compared with similar students that attend similar institutions is ignored.

Shining a light on how little value many colleges add for all that time, money, and opportunity cost would — if only so colleges can better compete for students — encourage colleges to reallocate resources. They would be incentivized to spend less on non-critical administrative and infrastructure costs and non-essential faculty and research and more on a transformational teaching faculty, mentoring, advising, and a more helpful career center.

That bright light might even finally push colleges to stand up to the faculty senates with such cost-saving and student-learning-enhancing innovations as online classes team-taught by world-class instructors.

Some have argued that such a Report Card should arise from the accreditation process. But each college pays the accrediting agency, which means colleges have, for the most part, been able to resist being required to post a substantive report card on their Web site. One agency, the Senior College Commission of the Western Association has made small steps in this direction but, as a member of its task force on accountability and transparency, I am not convinced it will do enough quickly enough. I believe this is a job for the government.

Before we blithely support yet more increases in taxpayer-funded college financial aid, which too often merely allows colleges to continue to raise their sticker price beyond the inflation rate, shouldn’t we hold colleges at least as accountable as we do tire manufacturers?

Do you think colleges should be required to prominently post a College Report Card on their Web site?

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