ON THE AGENDA | JULY 16TH, 2015 | Carolin Hagelskamp, Ph.D.

Key Lessons for the U.S. Department of Education on College Selection

The U.S. Department of Education announced a new web-based tool to help prospective students rate and choose colleges. Can the tool seriously change the way Americans make decisions about college? What we've learned from research in both higher ed and health care.

With word that a federal college ratings system is off the table, the U.S. Department of Education seems to have recognized what many experts have long said: comparing colleges and rating them against each other in a way that most people can agree on is very difficult, if not impossible. The Department’s decision to let go of its rating system is a major reversal of Obama’s college accountability push. It is also perhaps a wise one.

Giving up on its attempts to rate and compare colleges, the Department is now essentially saying "we leave it up to the consumer." At the end of the summer, a new, revised, web-based tool will launch. This tool will not include college ratings. Instead, a dozen or so updated metrics on college performance, from graduation rates to students’ earning outcomes, will be made public for prospective students to use and make informed decisions about colleges.

These metrics are important. They are increasing much needed and valued transparency in the higher education market. And yes, students and families should have all the information possible as they are making college choices.

But what are we really expecting students and families to do with these metrics, when the higher education experts in this country have just decided that it is impossible to make fair comparisons?

Will the new tool really be relevant? Can it seriously change the way Americans make decisions about college?

We do not yet know how innovative, engaging and consumer-centered the new tool will be. But we know from our research that existing tools (including College Navigator, College Scorecard and others) are not cutting it for most prospective students. This is especially true for adult prospective students who aren’t introduced to these tools through a high school guidance counselor or involved parent.

Our research with adult prospective students, as well as with undergraduates in community colleges and for-profit colleges, has shown that:

  1. The vast majority of students have never seen a college data comparison tool.
  2. When prospective students see existing comparison tools, they tend like them but are also often confused by the information.
  3. Many prospective students do not necessarily know, understand or think that data on graduation rates, loan default rates, debt and even future earnings should be key factors in their college choices. This is especially the case if the data is not broken down for the programs they are interested in and for people of their demographic.

More information without more engagement?

As the Department of Education designs the forthcoming web-based tool, it needs to figure out how to do so in a way that best engages students. The web tool should help students find the information most relevant to them and ensure that students interpret the information in the right way. For example, will there be a list of suggested key questions that students and families should ask as they are navigating the information? Otherwise, what can we expect from a system that just provides information but doesn’t assist people in interpreting it?

There are other steps the Department ought to take to make the tool relevant and useful. The tool's website should come up top in Google searches on college information. We also hope the new tool will be phone compatible or come in the form of an app. Otherwise, the Department will miss out on reaching many young adults.

What can we learn from health care about information transparency and consumer use of this info?

Having recently done research into public attitudes toward similar transparency efforts in health care, we wonder what the two sectors can learn from each other.

Health care is increasingly making prices and other “quality” information about services transparent for consumers to use and base their decisions on. That sector struggles with how to encourage high-value choices. Price information alone is not enough for patients to hang their decisions on. Meanwhile, quality indicators are mostly not meeting the needs of patients, who are interested in different kinds of quality information than medical and policy experts provide.

Research has shown that consumers weighing health care options gravitate to star systems and other visuals that sum up for them what might be the best choice. Yet are such systems too simplistic for a very diverse field in which comparisons are difficult?

The Department of Education will not be providing stars for colleges, but will leave it up to consumers to find the places that are best for them.will it lead to better outcomes?

Read more about the research referenced above:

Is College Worth it For Me? How Adults Without Degrees Think About Going (Back) to School

Profiting Higher Education? What Students, Alumni and Employers Think About For-Profit Colleges

How Much Will It Cost? How Americans Use Prices in Health Care

We'll be discussing how students approach the college selection process in depth at events in DC and NYC in September. Please sign up for our events email list if you're interested in attending.


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