Like many parents, I ended my summer proudly sending kids off to college—and worrying about paying the bills. I've been blessed with children who found success in school, in different ways, and had opportunities to attend fine colleges and universities. Each of their chosen institutions has been distinct in culture and programs and well-matched to the individual needs of each child. Each has also doubled in price since 1999, the year the oldest child began college.
So far, I've been satisfied with the investment. Three kids graduated on the four-year plan and the others look to follow suit. The graduates are on solid career paths—and no one's moved home after college! But, the investment has not been so good for millions of students—and I do not exaggerate the number. Only half of all students who enter college ever earn BAs, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Most students require student loans to finance their higher education, and today their collective debt totals over $1 trillion—more than the credit card debt of the entire adult population. Default rates on that debt are rising as students without degrees (or holding degrees not valued by the marketplace) cannot find jobs adequate to repay their loans.
Policymakers from Washington to our state capitals are beginning to ask hard questions of the colleges and universities where students are coming up short. As they should. The federal government contributes $175 billion a year in direct grants and subsidized loans, and owes it to taxpayers, not to mention students, to see that the money is well spent. States contribute roughly as much, largely through direct subsidies to their public institutions. Many colleges and universities do excellent jobs, and are the envy of the world. Nearly a million students from around the world come here to study. But the U.S. also has hundreds of institutions where students are actually more likely to default on their student loans than to earn a degree.
Policymakers do not want to run our colleges and universities—thankfully. They respect what independence has brought to American higher education, public as well as private institutions. But policymakers also want to provide more protection for students and their families, and some measure of encouragement to institutions to serve students better. They've settled upon the strategy of transparency—providing consumers with information such as tuition, net tuition after financial aid, and graduation rates—to help them make more informed choices. Reasonable enough, but this was just for starters.
Today, transparency has entered a new phase—call it the "new transparency." Policymakers recognize that universities are heterogeneous institutions and that the value proposition may not be the same for engineering students as it is for English majors. Several states now provide first year earnings data for the graduates of all public and private institutions in the state, by major. Check out Virginia, for illustration. Congress is now considering a proposal to rank colleges and universities based on "bang for the buck." What good is it to know graduation rates, earnings, and prices if you can’t easily compare schools to see where you get the most for your money—or so the argument goes. The proposal also aims to tie federal grants and loans to institutional value. Schools that offer the best return on investment—the highest rank—will receive the most generous aid for their students.
The latest proposal in Washington will hardly be the last word. But the demand for greater transparency has bipartisan roots and is not going away. The technology for providing transparency—linking student records to IRS and state tax records, for example, makes it more feasible all the time. Many colleges and universities have already signaled a willingness to discuss measurement systems and to display information about themselves that's easily accessible to students. For one example, check out U-CAN, the University and College Accountability Network , maintained by the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. The future of higher education—fast approaching—is a deeper understanding by students and families about the value of their investment of time and money.
As a researcher, I am quite skeptical about systems that seek to boil complex questions of performance down to single numbers or ranks—not to mention capture the value of education in only test scores, degrees, and earnings. But as a parent, I certainly would like to have the facts. Soon, facts of all kinds are certain to be abundant. When information can be had, it will be, with or without interventions from policymakers.
Independent schools have traveled some of the same paths as colleges and universities. Tuitions rising faster than inflation and family incomes. Financial aid becoming essential to fill seats as well as meet mission. Parents, particularly those without prior independent school experience, asking tougher questions about the value proposition. Fortunately, policymakers are not cogitating on the same accountability plans for independent schools as they have for colleges. But that does not mean the new transparency will not also beat a path to our doors.
Every independent school knows, especially post-recession, that it must be clear about its value proposition. As parents gain access to ever more revealing information about colleges and universities—about outcomes and about prices – and about public schools, they become more demanding and discerning consumers. This does not mean that all schools should use the same metrics to evaluate success. Many independent schools now use a variety of assessment tools to identify strengths and weaknesses in their own programs, not just to demonstrate value to parents.
But parent demand for information is likely to require a new level of objectivity and sophistication from all schools, private as well as public. It is our responsibility as educators to determine how we can best satisfy that demand while being true to our missions and preserving our unique school cultures and pedagogical approaches.