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Along With Increased Scrutiny of For-profits, Harvard Economist Urges Transparency for All Institutions

WASHINGTON – For-profit colleges and universities have been getting a bad rap for the past several months for allegedly being diploma mills that provide little guarantee that their graduates will be employable once they finish their programs. Recently, debate has intensified over whether they should be held more accountable. But according to a report released by Dr. Bridget Terry Long, a professor at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, traditional higher education institutions should also be providing more information about how valuable the schooling they provide will be in the workplace.

The report, titled “Grading Higher Education: Giving Consumers the Information They Need,” says that all the information currently gathered by colleges and universities about student loan burdens, graduation rates, average class sizes and other categories should be made more consumer friendly and available by the federal government.

“While higher education and education in general is very beneficial, we know that it’s an increasingly expensive investment,” Long said when she presented the paper at an event hosted by the Center for American Progress and the Hamilton Project at the National Press Club on Friday. “But let’s also realize that, while it’s more expensive, it’s also becoming much more risky.”

Long cited familiar statistics about how only 60 percent are graduating within six years but added that, even while tracking colleges with very similar student bodies, admission standards, and resources, there is still a “huge variation” in the percentage of students who will successfully complete a degree program.

“We also know that students are increasingly suffering from large levels of debt and that recent four-year graduates have an average of $24,000 in college student loans,” Long said. “So this says a lot about not only do we want students to go to college but that they have to be very aware of what benefits they’re going to get out of their particular program or degree so they can make that debt worthwhile.” Her paper suggests a variety of solutions that would help students avoid making bad investments and spending valuable, and often scarce, money and time attending institutions that have “a variable likelihood” of helping them achieve success.

Long proposes a multipronged strategy that she says would empower students and their families to make better informed choices and optimize their resources as well as public subsidies that offer support and access to post-secondary credentials. Specifically, the federal government, which already collects much of the data, should expand efforts to produce information in consumer-friendly language that will help individuals make college decisions and act as a centralized source that actively takes responsibility for packaging and disseminating it so that it is readily available and accessible. That information should include affordability and success measures, such as information about the college experience and graduation and employment/salary rates. This is particularly important for first-generation college students, Long said. Some colleges are already voluntarily gathering and making public that information, but it needs to be connected to consumers and actively disseminated.

In her paper, Long says, giving consumers better information could have multiple benefits, such as helping potential students find better matches for their interests and family situations, and perhaps spur them to choose institutions that have better rates of success and fields of study that will lead them into higher-paying, high-need professions. Such efforts would also nudge schools to improve the quality of their offerings, Long contends.

“Consumers should have access to data showing the real cost and value of a college degree,” Dr. Cheryl Hyman, chancellor of the City Colleges of Chicago, said in response to Long’s paper.

“To stress how important it is that this same data be used by government and higher education institutions to drive improvements in quality education, government should use data aggressively to hold higher education institutions accountable for their outcomes, and institutions must use the data to improve the quality of their offerings just as we’re doing at the City Colleges of Chicago,” Hyman said.

The City Colleges system has used such data to reach out to 15,000 students identified as being at-risk to help them develop plans for success. In addition, it is looking at graduation rates, the city’s workforce needs, and ways to recruit and retain students to ensure that its programs are relevant.

Hyman said that decisions about which college to attend should be made based on criteria used for any other significant investment or purchase. “You should know if your programs of interest are going to be of economic value to you once you graduate, what it’s going to cost you, and expected earnings over time,” she said. “It’s like any other product you want to invest in; you look at the performance, expectations and return on investment.” Like Long, she agrees that this is especially critical for minority students who have traditionally had less access to higher education and information about how to pursue it.

“It’s that lack of information that causes consumers to not make good choices in life, particularly minorities who’ve not had as much access to information as they need or even been guided on how to really study the information and use it to make the right choices,” she said.

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