Higher Education

Consumers get more information about a purchase they once made on trust: college

As the price keeps rising, pressure builds to reveal details of the return on this investment

Cal students in the Doe Library at UC Berkeley.

Cal students in the Doe Library at UC Berkeley.

Pssst! You wanna buy a college education?

Of course you do! People with college degrees earn about $1 million more over their lifetimes than those with only high school diplomas, and are far more likely to have jobs they enjoy.

At least, that’s how things turn out for the average American graduate, according to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

But good luck finding out whether a specific major from a particular university or college will get you a job, or how much you’ll eventually earn. Or, for that matter, how much that degree will ultimately cost or the likelihood you’ll ever earn one.

Even as a higher education becomes among the biggest investments Americans make, the information available about what students and their families are getting for their money remains stubbornly sparse and often inaccurate and even misleading.

People buying new cars can find out more about the prices, features, and performance than people going into debt to pay for college educations, critics contend. They say it’s easier to learn the odds of winning Powerball than of graduating, or to comparison-shop for a mattress than to compare the actual cost of tuition, fees, and other expenses among schools.

Some colleges’ response, say these critics: Trust us.

Propelled by rising costs, and pushed in part by outside forces, that’s beginning to change.

“There is a consumer protection strand of American history, and now it’s higher education’s turn,” said Daniel Greenstein, director of education and postsecondary success at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has been pressing for better information to be made available to students and their families. (Gates is among the funders of The Hechinger Report, which produced this story.)

Related: Confusing college financial-aid letters leave students, parents adrift

New research shows that the federal government’s College Scorecard website has been gaining traction among students — especially the information it provides about the average salaries earned by graduates of specific colleges and universities. Around 1.4 million people have used the website since it launched a year ago, the U.S. Department of Education reports, or 13 times as many as visited a previous federal website without postgraduate incomes listed.

Independent sources including PayScale and LinkedIn, and an initiative called College Measures run by a Washington nonprofit, are furnishing consumers with similar data about graduates’ career success, in even greater detail. Some states are helping students calculate their cost of college against the likely payoff. And at least one group of universities themselves is calling for a process to much more accurately measure graduation rates, breaking with other higher-education associations that have been lobbying against this.

“I’ve seen more activity in this area in the last year than in the last 10 years,” said Christine Keller, vice president for research and policy analysis of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, or APLU.

It’s the APLU that has most forcefully pushed for tracking individual students through college, which is known as student-unit recordkeeping, and which would make the statistics vastly more precise, but which Congress — lobbied by higher-education groups — banned the government from doing in 2008.

The current system more crudely counts only how many students enter as full-time freshmen and how many students graduate from the same institution four years or more after that. Older or part-time students, transfer students, and others don’t show up. More than half of people who earn bachelor’s degrees, for example, get them from someplace other than the institutions where they started, the APLU says, yet they disappear from the statistics, making some schools — among them, those that are APLU members — appear worse than they are and others look better.

The graduation rate is only one of the measures of a university or college that consumers can’t always easily or accurately learn.

Take it from Ellen Griffin. She first considered going to a for-profit university, which was eager to recruit her. “As soon as one person had my phone number they were calling and calling and emailing constantly,” Griffin said.

But when she tried to get answers about how much it would cost, or whether she would get a job with her degree, “I didn’t even know where to find it. I tried looking through some of their pamphlets, but if it was in there, it was buried really well. It seemed like a buy-here, pay-here car lot. You’re going to drive away and you don’t know what you’re going to get.”

Related: How financial aid declines after freshman year in college “bait and switch”

Universities and colleges that do furnish information about how many of their graduates get jobs, and how much they earn, often take it from surveys of alumni, which are more likely to be returned by those doing well than those who aren’t — though this is seldom explained to prospective students — and which can be wildly inaccurate.

“There is a whole host of questions students and families can’t answer when they’re trying to make their college decisions,” said Mamie Voight, director of policy research at the Institute for Higher Education Policy.

“It’s often been taken for granted that going to any college will have a strong payoff,” Voight said. “Now people are realizing that it matters what college you go to and what you major in. Students are making a huge investment of time and money in their college educations. They have the right to know what they’re going to get for it.”

Instead, only four in 10 college seniors end up feeling that their educations have prepared them for careers, a new survey by McGraw-Hill Education finds.

Griffin finally enrolled in a community college near her home in Kansas City, Missouri, then transferred to a small private, nonprofit university to get her bachelor’s degree.

“I was told they had this really great reputation and I thought, wow, this must be the place I need to go,” she said of the school, which she declined to name. “They were really great about working with me and helping me through the process. What wasn’t really explained to me is that even with my scholarships, the tuition was so high that I was borrowing a ton of money.”

Related: While Washington wavers, states provide detailed college ratings

Formal offers of financial aid often thwart attempts by students to compare the ultimate cost of one institution with the ultimate cost of another. Those offers also use terminology that’s hard to follow, list loans as “awards,” and promise work-study jobs that can’t be guaranteed. Aid also may decline after a student’s first year, something else they’re seldom told.

Griffin ended up transferring again, having learned, she said, that, “Just because a university has a well-known name doesn’t mean they’re offering you the best value.”

That’s borne out by a new report from the centrist public-policy think tank Third Way, which found no connection between the cost of a school and its quality, measured by graduation and job-placement rates, among other things.

“The market system that exists in higher education is completely broken,” said Tamara Hiler, Third Way’s policy advisor for education. “Market principles you would expect to see in any other sector, where outcomes are connected to price — that has completely gone out the window.”

Part of the reason for this, the Third Way report concluded, is that consumers can’t get the information they need to compare colleges the way they would compare — yup — cars.

“Unlike walking onto a car lot where every car has the same information printed on the side of it, that information is not available about college,” said Jen Engle, a senior program officer at the Gates Foundation.

Now colleges are getting window stickers, too.

Several members of Congress have joined the call to lift the ban on student-unit recordkeeping. That would improve the accuracy of graduation rates of universities and colleges that enroll part-time and older students and transfers — namely, public universities and community colleges.

Related: Been accepted into college? It’s time to start negotiating for a better price

Private nonprofits, which have less to gain, continue to resist this, citing student privacy concerns.

“Those privacy issues need to be addressed before you would even consider this,” said Sarah Flanagan, vice president for government relations at the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. “If we’re going to go there and the federal government is going to create a file on everybody who’s going to go to college, we need to answer the privacy questions.”

Tom Allison, deputy policy and research director at the millennial advocacy group Young Invincibles, is skeptical of this argument.

“I don’t hear any students complaining about privacy,” Allison said. “If you’re an organization that benefits from this image of ivy-covered brick walls and that just by being a college and giving out diplomas means you add value, then, no, you don’t want people looking under the hood and seeing what’s really going on.”

Six hundred colleges and universities of all kinds, members of something called the Student Achievement Measure, have stopped waiting for Congress to act and started to provide the more accurate graduation rates voluntarily.

So have many states. At least 32 of them now require their public universities, and colleges to supply not only graduation rates, but accurate job-placement rates and salaries of graduates.

PayScale and LinkedIn do this, too, though it isn’t scientific, since the jobs and salaries are drawn from only the people who respond to PayScale surveys or who join LinkedIn. PayScale ranks colleges by graduates’ salary potential; LinkedIn has a mobile app spotlighting careers that may be a good match for students in particular majors at particular colleges and universities, and where alumni of those universities and colleges are working, based on LinkedIn member data.

College Measures, produced by the nonprofit, nonpartisan American Institutes for Research, or AIR, compiles graduates’ salaries, by major and institution, in Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia. These states had and were willing to provide the information, AIR officials say; five or six more may eventually be added.

College Measures isn’t perfect either, relying as it does on matching the graduates with their jobs by using unemployment insurance records, which include the name and salary of almost everyone who works in a given state. Those records don’t count graduates who move out of state or work for the federal government.

Now AIR, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and Gallup have debuted a website in Colorado called Launch My Career to deliver this information even more directly to prospective students, showing them how much they’ll make with a specific major from a particular Colorado university or college. Tennessee is next. Colorado also has an online calculator that computes whether or not the cost of a student loan is worth the likely earnings from a degree in any major anywhere.

Related: Students are enlisted to help flailing classmates deal with money matters

That’s what students say they want from college — good jobs. In an annual national survey by an institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, a record 88 percent of 1.5 million students at 1,574 colleges and universities who just finished their freshman years said they enrolled to improve their career prospects.

As more information becomes available about which schools can best help them do this, consumers are already voting with their feet.

The College Scorecard also lists the average income of graduates of colleges and universities, which it gets by matching student-loan information from the U.S. Department of Education with earnings provided by the Internal Revenue Service, and while its weakness is that it isn’t broken down by major or include students who don’t use federal grants or loans, it appears to already be changing behaviors in only the website’s first year, according to a study by the College Board.

For every 10 percent increase in graduates’ earnings, the study estimated, there was a 2.4 percent increase in the number of high school students who had their SAT results sent to a given university or college — an indication they were interested in going there. The more affluent the student, the more sensitive to future income he or she proved. Among private high school students, every 10 percent increase in salary brought an estimated 4.1 percent increase in interest. For some universities, that comes to hundreds of additional prospective applicants.

And why not, asked Ellen Griffin, who has almost reached the limit of student loans she can take out with a year still left to go before she graduates with a degree in social psychology.

“Every student should have access to that information,” Griffin said. “There should be a way to say, ‘You’re charging this much? How am I going to pay this back? Can I get a job that will pay me back as much as I just paid you for tuition?’”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about higher education.

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Jon Marcus

Jon Marcus, higher-education editor, has written about higher education for the Washington Post, USA Today, Time, the Boston Globe, Washington Monthly, is North America higher-education… See Archive