How much will my education cost? Is it a good value for me and my family? Will I be able to get a job when I graduate? These questions and others are often at the forefront of parents’ and prospective students’ minds when picking a college or university, but a new study calls into question whether higher ed institutions who voluntarily reveal information about themselves are providing misleading information to consumers.
The March report co-authored by Education Sector and the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) education analysts alleges that the two public online databases into which colleges and universities voluntarily submit their “information on costs and outcomes”—U-CAN and VSA—
are either inadequate or deliberately ineffectual. “The U-CAN’s institutional profiles are attractive, but provide no new information…” write Andrew P. Kelly and Chad Aldeman, authors of the report. And, they write, “…the VSA’s College Portraits release new data on student engagement and achievement, but they do so in ways that fail to facilitate consumers’ ability to differentiate schools from one another.”
The study examines information released under the “Voluntary System of Accountability” (VSA) program set up by the Association of Public Land-Grant Universities, APLU and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU). However, it is limited to “those who were participants and non-participants [in VSA] as of the end of September 2009,” according to the authors.
Kelly and Aldeman’s examination found that:
- The VSA “College Portrait” system does not provide cross-tabs or the ability for parents to compare statistics between institutions. “In other words, designing a college information clearinghouse that made comparisons difficult was not the result of poor web design, but was deliberate,” they write.
- Net cost estimate calculators provided by participating institutions are weak. “At the end of September 2009, of the 329 institutions that had joined the VSA, 109 had a functioning link to a calculator that factored in the institution’s tuition and fees, the student’s living arrangements, and the family’s ability to pay,” write Kelly and Aldeman. Other participating schools “linked to generic tuition cost tables” or sites with calculators that didn’t track financial aid, and some “merely linked to the school’s financial aid department,” or chose some other option.
- The “future plans” section of these College Portraits highlight the aspirations of a school’s seniors not their actual outcomes.
- The VSA requires schools to demonstrate “‘…student abilities in critical thinking, analytical reasoning, and written communication’” by publishing “freshmen and senior scores on one of three eligible standardized exams…,” they write, but criticize the VSA for not converting these scores into easily understandable percentiles.
- While student engagement is measured using data from the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), the researchers argue that the VSA has collapsed certain question categories in order to obscure differences between institutions,
- and so on.
The authors chose not to examine the University and College Accountability Network (U-CAN) site because “it is essentially a re-packaging of data that are available elsewhere and it provides almost no new information about costs, student experiences, or learning outcomes to parents and prospective students.”
Kelly and Aldeman—who acknowledge input from Mark Schneider, Kevin Carey and Rick Hess—recommend that the release of “informative and comparable data” from public colleges and universities become “mandatory,” not voluntary, at the state level (emphasis in original). “Increased transparency should not be a choice for institutions that receive public funds, but a requirement,” they write. When asked whether they were suggesting legislators should regulate public institutions or all higher education institutions receiving public funds, the authors did not respond in time for publication.
“Though social and political pressure to join voluntary systems might succeed in the long run, statutory or regulatory pressure from state legislatures to increase transparency could pay more certain and immediate dividends,” they contend.
As Winston Churchill once said, “To build may have to be the slow and laborious task of years. To destroy can be the thoughtless act of a single day.”
Bethany Stotts is a staff writer at Accuracy in Academia.