Report: More Government Involvement Needed in College Search Process

The federal government needs to help prospective students get the information they need, author says.

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Prospective students and their parents need more and far better information—particularly about outcomes—in order to help them decide the best school to attend and the federal government should take the lead to distribute this information and mandate new data requirements. This conclusion is from a just released report, " Grading Higher Education Giving Consumers the Information They Need," by Harvard University professor Bridget Terry Long.

The report's key conclusion is:

"for the federal government to expand the types of information that are available and allow users to compare indicators like cost, financial aid, student debt, employment outcomes, and average salaries following graduation, across peer institutions. An important part of the proposal is dissemination. To make sure the information is available to all who could benefit, additional effort must be taken to translate and circulate this information to an audience that may understand little about higher education offerings, pricing, aid, or quality. The federal government should actively reach out to potential students where they live, study and work. This should be done not only through an online interface but also partnerships with educational, social services, and employment organizations along with other government agencies."

The report also says that the federal government needs to more involved in the process since

"students respond greatly to rankings systems, suggesting that there is great demand for information on colleges. However, most college publications and ranking guides focus on inputs, such as the average achievement levels of the student body or the selectivity of the institution. What is needed is more information on what the college actually does for its students and what value students get from the degree. This information is not included in the U.S. News & World Report rankings. Moreover, research has documented the perverse incentives institutions have to "game the system" and maximize the indicators used in the rankings calculations. Therefore, colleges that improve their rankings may not have actually improved their educational quality. This makes a strong case for the federal government to be the first stop and gateway for accurate information for consumers."

My interpretation of this report: Long's take on the impact of the U.S News rankings is misleading. It's very important to remember that the U.S. News & World Report rankings are primarily geared toward consumers—prospective students and their parents, both in the United States and globally. We believe that our rankings provide one important tool to use in helping applicants choose the right college to attend. It's true that our Best Colleges rankings are increasingly being used by many colleges for benchmarking and as part of other higher education policy goals. It's not the intent of U.S. News to provide college administrators with such policy tools, and we have cautioned academia about potential problems that come with using the U.S.News & World Report Best Colleges rankings for benchmarking and other goals.

The call for colleges to report new and richer information is not new. Yet, we fully back the conclusion of the report that colleges need to start collecting and providing prospective students far more data on comparable outcomes, assessment, salary, jobs, and student learning. If this data were available, U.S. News would collect it and incorporate it into our rankings. However, we don't think the federal government would be successful if mandated to be the primary information provider to prospective students and their parents.

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