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Can We Fix How We Judge and Pay for College?

You can get a rating on everything — from an Uber driver to a fast food place. But for a recent college graduate like me, finding out things that matter to us about where to go to school and how to pay for it is getting harder, not easier.

For a few years, students were able to learn how well career training programs perform through something called the federal gainful employment regulations. A judge got rid of some of the disclosures and the Trump administration has done away with them altogether. The U.S. Dept. of Education’s new focus on providing outcomes for individual higher ed programs is a step in the right direction so students won’t be vulnerable to taking on debt for their education that doesn’t lead to jobs.

A granddaddy in the rankings business is U.S. News. It’s been rating colleges for nearly 40 years — just about twice the time I’ve been alive. It’s great that Princeton, Harvard and Yale do so well year after year, but these universities reject about 95 percent of its applicants. In fact, there’s not one public university in U.S. News top 20 list.

This is the time of year when the new rankings come out. One survey found 66 percent of students considered college rankings in deciding where to go, so they do matter.

Jefferson NoëlJefferson Noël

When I was choosing a university, it seemed pretty obvious that the most important thing was how well the university does its main job — educating students.

U.S. News ranks my school, Florida International University, as number six in the U.S. for promoting student social mobility but only at number 187 in its overall national rankings. I wish that social mobility success counted for a lot more with U.S. News.

There are other ratings that provide more details. Washington Monthly placed FIU at number 30 on its list “Best Bang for the Buck universities in the Southeast.” This is based on how FIU helps non-wealthy students attain marketable degrees at affordable prices.

The Monthly’s rankings highlight why it’s important to pay attention to where students get their information. Augusta University is a public research university in Georgia that enrolls a really diverse group of students.

Augusta has a focus on training students for jobs in the health care; it’s graduates on average earn “far more money than statistical models predict and pay their loans back at a much higher rate, all for an affordable net price of about $10,000 per year for families earning less than $75,000.” If you relied on U.S. News, you’d find Augusta at#231 – #300; Washington Monthly has it at 30.

The importance of understanding numbers and words keep growing. A recent study looked at 455 award letters from colleges and universities that offered an unsubsidized student loan. It found that these institutions used 136 unique terms for that loan; 24 even left out the word “loan.” More than one-third of the 515 award letters it reviewed failed to provide any cost information to contextualize that financial aid.

A bipartisan bill in the Senate, “Understanding the True Cost of College Act,” would require colleges and universities to use a standardized template when they send financial aid news to students and families. Overall, we need more details, not less. More information outlining the impact on our future. More metrics that encourage upward economic mobility.

We should know as much about what our colleges will do for us and how we’ll pay for it as we do about the favorite burrito shop on campus.

Jefferson Noël is a recent graduate of Florida International University, where he served as student body president of the Biscayne Bay Campus. He’s the founder of Barbershop Speaks and author of two books.

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