Friday, July 15, 2011

The College Report Card: Making Colleges More Transparent and Accountable

Here is a video--with lots of visuals with supporting data and photos--in which I make the case for colleges to be required to prominently post on its website an externally audited report card on itself.

Such a College Report Card would help students choose a college more wisely. Even more important, it would pressure colleges to finally add sufficient value for the enormous time and money that a college or graduate degree demands.

Below the video is a transcript of it as well as links to my other recent writings about The College Report Card, including a version for students and parents to use in selecting a college.

It's very difficult to choose a college wisely.

And it's not surprising. We require tires to have "report card" grades molded into their sidewalls. We require packaged foods to prominently list their calories, fat, even vitamins and minerals. Yet, colleges, one of our most important and expensive purchases are required to prominently post nothing on their websites.

So colleges just hire marketing firms to manipulate students into choosing their college based on such things as deceptive pictures, for example, pointing out the prettiest part of campus. It will not point out, for example, that the weather is bone-chilling miserable half the year or that the campus crime rate is terrible. At Tulane, despite all the pretty pictures on the website, there were three rapes, 30 burglaries, 193 cases of larceny--in just one school year.

Or the pretty pictures somehow don't include, for example, a picture of the mice and rats in Georgetown dorms, which I first heard about decades ago and recently in College Prowler, which posts student reviews said, "Often you will find rats. There are lots of rats."

The colleges post photos on their websites of small, personalized classes taught by an inspired professor and deeply engaged students, even on campuses where most of a student's time is spent in large lectures, or with boring professors.

Colleges post pictures of an engaged student peering into a test tube, which implies that many undergraduates are intimately involved in important research, when in fact only a small percentage are and even if they are, it's usually of little or no benefit to their development let alone their career.

Of course, nearly all college websites include a shot of happy graduates. But few colleges reveal the fact that most students don't graduate even if they take six years. Most students!

And in the coup de gras, the colleges post pictures that suggest that a degree from their school is the key to a great job. In fact, almost half of students are not working or with jobs that don't require a college degree.

Colleges love to trumpet the grossly misleading statistic that college graduates earn a million dollars more over their lifetime. Why misleading? It would take a long time to fully explain, but I'll just quickly say here that that data looks backward not forward--today we have an oversupply of college students. Second, the pool of college graduates is very different in ability, motivation and connections than the pool of non-graduates, so you could have locked the graduates in a closet for four years and they'd have earned more money. And indeed, they wouldn't be locked in a closet, they'd be learning on the job, making connections. Don't fall for deceptive statistics marketed by colleges and repeated in the media.

More basic, on most colleges' sites, it's hard to even find out the total cost of four years: assuming you graduate in four years. (I showed U.S.C.'s financial aid page.) No cost listing. Where's the sticker price?! Note their again deceiving with statistics: "60% of students at USC receive some type of financial assistance." How much? Where, based on your family's income and assets is an estimate of how much financial aid you'll get--not loan, the cash aid! Not just in year one, where they may give you a bigger discount to get you in the door, like the drug dealer who gives you the first dose of crack free or cheap to get you hooked and then jacks up the price.

And indeed, graduates and dropouts alike are terribly weighed down in student debt at the same time as the glut of college graduates has resulted in nearly half of them unemployed or doing jobs they could have done with a mere high school diploma.

It's particularly important to report the true cost of a college education with report after report showing how little value students actually get from higher education. Here, I include shots of articles excoriating higher education in New York magazine, the LA Times, New York Times,, the Wall Street Journal, and books: Crisis on Campus (Knopf), The Five-Year Party, No Sucker Left Behind, University Inc, Higher Education?: How colleges are wasting our money and failing our kids.

Among the most scathing books is Academically Adrift, the 2011 authoritative report from the University of Chicago that found that nationwide, students grow frighteningly little even if they defy the odds and graduate: 45% grew not at all in the first two years. 36% not at all from freshman to senior!

Again, may I remind you how many even of the graduates are unemployed and countless more underemployed? Nearly half!

It's time for government to mandate that each college issue an externally audited Report Card on itself. It should include:
  • The full projected four-year cost of attendance (subtracting cash financial aid), disaggregated by family income and assets.
  • Freshman-to-senior growth in reading, critical thinking, etc., disaggregated by student’s high school record.
  • 4- and 6-year graduation rates, disaggregated by student’s high school record.
  • The results of a student satisfaction survey
  • The summary of the accreditation visiting team report.
  • The % of graduates who are professionally employed within one year of graduation, broken down by major.
Of course, such a College Report Card would empower students to choose their college wisely or even to decide that, for that person, a wiser choice would be a short program at a community college for example in robotics repair or cheffing, the military, or on-the-job training, for example, at the elbow of a journeyman electrician or an ethical and successful small business owner.

Bringing transparency to how much value-added a college provides for all the time, money, and opportunity cost would bring another important benefit: It would pressure colleges that add too little value for all that time and money, which according to the research, is MOST colleges, to improve. (Currently, colleges experience no such pressure.

Mandating a College Report Card would help colleges become the national treasure they claim they are, help our students to get an education that will make them more thoughtful human beings, better citizens, and more employable. That, in turn, would help America remain vibrant in our ever tougher global economy.
* * * * *
HERE is a link to a four-page proposal for a College Report Card.

And HERE is a link to a College Report Card that students and families might use to help pick a college.


Rosh said...

This is good for the future, but I am entering senior year next year. How can I choose a good college now?

Marty Nemko said...


As I mentioned in the video, at the bottom of this blog post is a link to a College Report Card that you can and should use in choosing your college.

Anonymous said...

I am no fan of USC, but I found your allegation that it was difficult to find the cost of going to school there on their website. It took about one minute to click on the "About USC", "USC At a Glance", and then "USC By the Numbers" to find the current undergraduate tuition and fees. I went on to check four other private universities (Stanford, Pomona, Willamette, Dartmouth) and had no difficulty finding the costs at each school. Your points may be valid, but inaccuracies and broad generalizations detract from the message.

Marty Nemko said...

I sense that you know higher education, are educated, and not a teenager, and so perhaps that's why you so easily were able to find the sticker price.

The average high school student or family, let alone a typical first-generation college student would find it much more difficult. For example, when I visited the U.S.C. site, I tried to follow what would seem to be the most logical path for a prospective undergraduate to find the price of attendance. It wasn't on U.S.C's home page so I moused over what seemed to be the most logical place to find it: "Admission."

When I did that, my choices then were "Undergraduate Admission," "Graduate Admission," and" Financial Aid." So I clicked on "Financial Aid."

That took me to a page with lots and lots of options. The highlighted options--a video and a "bold yellow "Click here"--did not provide the cost of attendance.

I then looked at the clickable fine-print options on the Financial Aid page. The option that offered the most hope for finding the college's sticker price was "Frequently Asked Questions." When I clicked that, I got eight options, the most promising of which was "fees and insurance." I was sure that when I clicked on that, I'd see the sticker price.

But no. All it said was how go about paying my account. No price tag for one year, let alone four years, let alone the five and six years most students take. No estimate of the amount of cash aid and loan aid I'd get.

College is one of the most expensive and important purchases we make. Shouldn't we demand the minimal transparency of, on the home page or one logical click away, providing the sticker price and the various discounts you'd get given your family's income and assets, and how much scholarship you're likely to qualify for given your high school record?

For nearly all other items for sale, for example, a new car, a home, indeed everything we buy in most stores, the prices are immediately and clearly marked. Yet with colleges, students must often click and click, often through NON-obvious paths, to find the sticker price, and at some campuses, I couldn't find it at all. I would imagine that many high school students and their families, especially first-generation college-bound students, would find it significantly more difficult.

The fact that you, who seem to be knowledgeable of higher education, well educated, and older than a teenager, was able to click your way to find the prices doesn't mean that the nation of high school students can.

Colleges want to hide their price tags, but that's not acceptable. That's one of the many reasons I'm calling for a College Report Card: so important information be easily available to all prospective students.


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