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09.03 DC EVENT: Choosing College: How We Can Help Students Make Better Decisions

Thursday, September 3rd, 2015 | Public Agenda

Thursday, September 17, 2015
09:00 AM – 11:30 AM
1899 L Street NW, Suite 400
Washington, DC, 20036

It's that time of year. Recent high school grads are loading up the family car and heading to State U or a private liberal arts college. They chose this college after carefully weighing their options, with help from their family members and guidance counselor. They'll spend the next four years coming of age living on a cozy campus.

Yet people don't realize that many first-time college students don't fit the traditional college student archetype that society tends to envision. They're not entering college straight from high school. They're taking classes while working full- or part-time. Many have families to care for. Moreover, many don't know about or have access to resources to help them make careful, well-informed decisions about what college is best for them.

The current research base on how students - especially older, "nontraditional" students - decide to attend and pay for college is incredibly thin. A lack of understanding about nontraditional students encourages policymakers to craft policies that are targeted only to a narrow subset of college students. It also promotes a system where students lack key information to help inform their decisions.

Recent survey research from Public Agenda and New America aims to help practitioners, researchers and policymakers better understand the expectations and concerns of today's students and the factors they consider when choosing a college. Findings from that research include:

  • 41 percent of students said they did not find enough helpful information to make their college decision.
  • Just 37 percent of community college students say they seriously looked into other schools before enrolling.
  • Less than 1 in 5 adult prospective students has used an interactive website like the College Scorecard when considering college choices.
  • 48 percent of students from families making less than $50,000 were unfamiliar with the Pell Grant, the cornerstone of federal financial aid for low-income students.

How can the findings of these surveys help inform policymaking focused on improving student outcomes, particularly as Congress looks to reauthorize the Higher Education Act? How can we help prospective students have a better understanding of which college will be the right fit for them?

Click on the video below for a presentation of respective surveys from Public Agenda and New America and a follow-up panel discussion with researchers and policymakers.

Join the discussion online using #CollegeDecisions and following @PublicAgenda and @NewAmericaEd.

Download the research presentation here.


9:00 AM: Breakfast and Registration

9:30 AM: Welcome and Opening Presentation

Carolin Hagelskamp
Director of Research, Public Agenda
Author of Is College Worth it For Me?

Rachel Fishman
Senior Policy Analyst, Education Policy Program, New America
Author of the College Decisions Series

10:00 AM: Panel Discussion

Kevin Fudge
Manager of Government Relations and Community Affairs, American Student Assistance

John Pryor
Principal, Pryor Education Insights

Carrie Warick
Director of Partnerships and Policy, National College Access Network

Moderator: Libby Nelson
Education Reporter, Vox


07.22 Charter Schools In Perspective: What We Know and What We Talk About

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2015 | Megan Rose Donovan

Back in February, Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander, who serves as the Chairman of the Senate Education panel, expressed some confusion over a basic characteristic of charter schools. During an event at the Brookings Institute, Sen. Alexander asked, "there are some private charter schools, are there not?"

If one of our top education policymakers — someone leading the effort to overhaul the nation’s main federal education law – is confused about charter schools, it’s easy to understand why parents, voters, educators and others also have significant gaps in knowledge.

Despite not knowing all that much about charter schools, we remain eager to comment on them. Yet our conversations about charter schools and how these schools should fit into the larger picture of education reform are often unproductive. In partnership with the Spencer Foundation, we’re trying to change that dynamic, with a new effort called Charter Schools In Perspective.

Charter Schools In Perspective is a set of resources that can help anyone – parents, voters, educators, policymakers – get past the clatter, focus on practical questions and have a better conversation about charters and school reform.

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

Thursday, July 16th, 2015 | Carolin Hagelskamp, Ph.D.

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?

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05.21 Corinthian Dominates Headlines, but Students and Employers on For-Profits' Sidelines

Thursday, May 21st, 2015 | Allison Rizzolo

Earlier this month, for-profit giant Corinthian Colleges officially declared bankruptcy, after having gradually closed its campuses over the past year. The high-profile failure of Corinthian – once a Wall Street darling – has cast a shadow on the for-profit college industry.

As the collapse of Corinthian dominates headlines, we worry that narratives that underscore controversy or oversimplify the higher education system may harm efforts to foster a healthier, more inclusive conversation.

For-profits may be a top concern for some of our legislators and education leaders. However, our research suggests that expert-level policy conversations about these schools are not meaningful to students and employers, two groups directly affected by the success or failure of for-profit schools.

For example, nearly half of undergraduate students currently attending a for-profit school and 41 percent of for-profit alumni are not familiar with the term "for-profit college."

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03.31 JJ Baskin, Public Agenda Board Member, 1966-2015

Tuesday, March 31st, 2015 | Public Agenda

J.J. Baskin, 1966 - 2015

We're saddened to share the news that Public Agenda Board Member JJ Baskin passed away last week. With JJ's passing, the country has lost a great man and a force for good. JJ's deep commitment to improving education was matched by his boundless energy, and that energy stayed with him to the end.

We first met JJ two years ago down in Austin, Texas -- his home state. JJ's energy, dedication and optimism inspired us, and we invited him to join the Public Agenda board soon after.

JJ had so much faith in the Public Agenda mission and team. He was constantly working to advance our mission by contributing ideas and cultivating relationships. As JJ's obituary points out, he was a world-class connector who took enormous joy in serving others.

While we didn't know him long, it was long enough to know he was one of the finest people we'd ever meet. His dedication to good work and his fellow humans was a genuine inspiration, and we were lucky to experience his creativity and kindness firsthand. We at Public Agenda hope we can honor JJ's memory by capturing and channeling a little bit of his spirit, goodness and commitment to making the world a better place.

When JJ was first diagnosed with cancer, not even a year ago, he formed JJ's Fight Club. He called it a "team of optimists" and asked its members to "inspire us and remind us of what we are fighting for."

We may have lost JJ, but he will continue to inspire and remind us of what we are fighting for.

Read more about JJ and his life's work.


03.26 Americans Are Eager for Price Information, New Survey Finds

Thursday, March 26th, 2015 | David Schleifer and Andrea Ducas

Originally published at Health Affairs Blog on March 26th, 2015.

Most insured Americans pay health care deductibles and coinsurance, with cost-sharing rates that seem to be continually increasing. At the same time, millions of uninsured people face unpredictable and often high charges for medical care.

In other words, Americans have a significant amount of “skin in the game” when it comes to health care. That said, it’s not easy for most people to find out how much their health care will cost—let alone to find lower-priced care. The opacity of health care prices is one major reason for this. Despite the fact that so many Americans must pay for so much of their medical care out of pocket, easy access to accurate price information remains far from routine.

This month, Public Agenda, with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, released the results of a national survey finding that 56 percent of American adults say they have tried to find out their out-of-pocket costs (excluding a copay) before getting the care they needed, or have tried to find out how much their insurance would pay a doctor or hospital. In other words, despite the opacity of price information, the majority of Americans have at least tried to find out how much their care would cost.

The survey also found that the majority of Americans do not believe that higher prices are typically a sign of better quality. Together, these findings suggest that Americans are open to looking for better-value care.

But just because people are looking for price information does not necessarily mean they are comparing prices. Looking more closely at the 56 percent of Americans who have tried to find out how much their care would cost, 33 percent of all Americans checked prices from just one provider, and only 21 percent of all Americans compared prices across multiple providers (for the remaining 2 percent, our survey could not determine whether they had checked or compared). However, the majority (62 percent) of those who did compare prices say they saved money by doing so.

So why aren’t more people shopping around? Our survey suggests one possible reason: a substantial number of insured (57 percent) and uninsured (47 percent) Americans are not aware that physicians might actually charge different prices to different people for the same services. Our follow-up interviews also indicate that people may not compare prices because they are unable or unwilling to change providers.

In our report, we highlight a number of recommendations for insurers, employers, policy makers, and providers who want to make price information more easily available to patients and families, including the following:

  • Strengthen the capacity of providers, staff, and insurance company personnel to discuss prices. Some of the most common ways that people try to find price information are asking receptionists or other staff in their doctors’ offices, calling their insurers, and looking on their insurers’ websites. Enhancing the availability and quality of price information at these and other potential access points could help ensure that consumers are able to find out how much they will have to pay out of pocket.
  • Help people understand that prices vary. Our survey found that many Americans are not aware that providers’ prices vary. While policy experts, price information vendors, and journalists have devoted considerable attention to health care prices, more can be done to help people better understand price variation.
  • Help people understand how to find price information. Fifty percent of Americans who had never sought price information said they did not know how to find it. This suggests a need for more outreach and education about reliable sources of price information.
  • Focus on people who care for others and on those who receive regular medical care. Americans who compare prices are more likely than others to be helping another adult family member make health care decisions or to be receiving regular medical care themselves. Those working to engage more people in comparing prices may therefore wish to focus on, and tailor their outreach and support to, caregivers and those getting regular care.
  • Recognize the obstacles to seeking and comparing prices and to choosing better-value care. Follow-up interviews with survey respondents who checked but did not compare prices suggest that many people are not comparing because of issues of convenience, access, or trust. For example, one man insisted he would never consider going anywhere besides his local academic medical center where he feels comfortable, where he knows the doctors, and where his medical records are kept. One woman told us she did not compare providers’ prices for a surgical procedure because she felt the surgeon she had chosen was the only person in her rural area she trusted to do the procedure she needed. Some people may see comparing prices as a burden on patients. For example, a focus-group participant who had never sought price information felt that expecting people to compare prices would be yet another obligation in the already-confusing health care system. In fact, our survey found that 43 percent of Americans say it is not reasonable to expect people to compare prices before getting care.

While seeking out and comparing prices may not be appropriate for everyone or for every medical situation, many Americans are open to using price information to choose better-value care.

We invite you to dig into our full report and its implications here.



02.11 Paying for Quality over Quantity in Health Care: Why the Public Ought to Be Engaged

Wednesday, February 11th, 2015 | Allison Rizzolo

In late January, the Obama administration announced a plan to drastically change the way Medicare reimburses doctors and hospitals for health care services.

Traditionally, Medicare has paid providers using a fee-for-service model. In this model, doctors and hospitals receive payment based on the number of services they provide – surgeries performed or tests administered, for example.

The White House is proposing a move toward a performance-based model in which doctors and hospitals are paid based on the quality of their service. In short, they will be paid more if patients get healthier and less if patients stay sick.

This experiment may encourage other payers to change the way they reimburse providers as well. As Jason Millman noted on Wonkblog, "Because Medicare is such a huge part of health care spending, the hope is that these changes will trickle out to doctors' offices and hospitals across the country."

In health policy wonk circles, changing the way doctors and hospitals are paid is called payment reform. It's one of several approaches experts have proposed to help bring down the cost of our country's health care system. (Costs are soaring: we paid an average of $8,917 per person for health care in 2010, up from $4,878 just a decade earlier.)

National Health Expenditures Per Capita, 1960 - 2010

Source: CMS, "Table 1. National Health Expenditures; Aggregate and Per Capita Amounts, Annual Percent Change and Percent Distribution: Selected Calendar Years 1960-2011,"

It's clear we need to do something, but any approach to bringing down costs, including payment reform, raises many complex and difficult questions. In the case of performance-based payment reform, the most important is: How do we measure quality in health care?

This is a difficult question to answer in any sector, and policy and decision makers have certainly stumbled on measuring quality before. Take teacher quality, for example, an issue close to my own heart. When re-vamping teacher evaluation systems, states and districts often did not include the educators and administrators on the ground in decisions. Now, many states and districts not only have to go back to the drawing board, they also have to rebuild frayed relationships and trust.

Engaging hospitals and doctors is crucial to making payment reform work for Medicare, and to proving to private insurers that it can work for them too. It's to policymakers' advantage to include patients in the conversation about payment reform as well. This is particularly important now, as the public is, for better or worse, taking on more and more responsibility as consumers of health care.

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12.04 Three Ways Deeper Engagement Improves the Relationship Between Officials and Residents

Thursday, December 4th, 2014 | Allison Rizzolo

Our local public officials are thirsty for better and deeper ways to engage the people they serve. This is a sentiment I heard again and again during last month's National League of Cities Congress of Cities in Austin.

Public officials brainstorm hypothetical projects during a mock participatory budgeting exercise at the NLC's Congress of Cities.

The sentiment was cast in sharp relief during a workshop on participatory budgeting that I attended as part of the conference. Our partners at the Participatory Budgeting Project (PBP for short) presented to a variety of elected and appointed officials from cities across the country.

Participatory budgeting is a process through which residents are active partners in local budget decisions. We are partnering with PBP on research and evaluation of participatory budgeting processes in communities across the country.

During the workshop in Austin, PBP's Josh Lerner and Maria Hadden provided participants with practical tools and training to launch participatory budgeting in their communities and better engage their constituents in local budget decisions.

Josh and Maria opened the workshop by asking participants about the barriers to constituent engagement that they face in their communities. Participants also talked about what they were hoping to get out of the conference to address those challenges. This conversation revealed a number of difficulties that local officials share when it comes to engaging their constituents in better and deeper ways, regardless of the size or demographics of their city, town or county.

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