The Forum | College Admissions

Intern Blog: Buyer’s Remorse: How Consumer Scrutiny is Changing Higher Ed

August 17, 2017

No one likes making uninformed decisions. “About a third of all internet transactions are returned by shoppers” reports the Wall Street Journal, causing massive increases in customer service costs for businesses. Today’s American consumers are picky, and businesses are having to adapt their practices in order to accommodate them.

There is nothing wrong with being careful with your money. But what if instead of a $15 clothing item, we are talking about attending a college or university, with an average cost of $30,000 a year? In a Los Angeles Times op-ed, editorial board member Karin Klein argued that “the average American has better access to information about $60 coffee makers than $60,000 a year universities.” From the looks of it, $60 coffee makers have more thorough vetting procedures than these universities. Can it really be true that coffee companies and online clothing stores take customer feedback more seriously than the institutions that are educating the next generation?

Students want more than a pile of debt and regrets from their college education. Although education is an intangible product, quality control is still vital. Average Americans in their thirties have $34,033 in student debt. A June 2017 poll from Gallup revealed that a little less than a third of these students on average would even choose their alma mater again if they had the chance to redo their college education.

So many factors determine whether or not students will get a good return on their educational investments. For example, students borrow and invest significant sums to attend prestigious colleges, so debt relative to earnings is an important, but highly variable factor. Additionally, graduates of elite institutions are likely to succeed regardless of what college they attend, so it’s hard to determine the influence of an institution on an individual’s success. Nonetheless, deteriorating faith in the value of higher education means that colleges must do more to convice students that they offer a quality education, rather than relying on reputation alone.

Will consumer accountability build pressure for colleges to produce better outcomes? Here’s a quick overview of some of the issues at stake.

Rethink quality assurance.

College accreditation has been the primary vetting process for higher education since 1952, when it became the gatekeeper for federal higher education funding. But, the current accreditation process is not doing its job to the fullest extent and needs reform. Among many other problems, the process does not provide students or parents with meaningful information since even poor-performing institutions continue to receive accreditation.

For example, the University of Chicago and Northeast Illinois University are both accredited by the Higher Learning Commission (HLC), but whereas the University of Chicago has an 86% four-year graduation rate, Northeast Illinois University has a 4% four-year graduation rate. A student relying solely on information provided by their accreditor would not be able to differentiate much between the institutions—only that they have both earned a seal of approval that allows both schools to receive federal aid through government subsidized student loans. This simply isn’t enough information to make an informed decision. Accreditation needs to place a renewed emphasis on student outcomes, instead of clearing bureaucratic hoops and hurdles.

Create consumer transparency through data.

Lucklily, there are other sources of information, but they are equally incomplete. The ubiquitous U.S. News & World Report college rankings publish much more information, but that data is primarily admissions data, which measures the strength of students entering a school, not the net gain of students who have completed their education. The U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard attempted to fill in the blanks by reporting average salaries of alumni six years after graduation, but even this data is problematic, because variables between majors and career tracks can skew the data.

Some in Congress want to go further: The U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee recently considered a proposal to track individual students after graduation, currently prohibited under the 2008 reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. As Congress weighs the pros and cons of collecting better educational data while preserving student privacy, it leaves academic transparency largely in the hands of colleges.

Strike first on institutional accountability.

Ultimately, colleges and universities must assure incoming students that they will receive a quality education, and it is actually in their best interest. Given the changes in American consumerism, this is no longer just a virtuous pursuit for higher education institutions, but essential to their survival. Universities could see positive benefits to administering a value-added assessment and publishing students’ average learning gains. Tests like the Council for Aid to Education’s CLA+ and the Educational Testing Service’s Proficiency Profile can demonstrate that students have developed knowledge and mastery in specific skills throughout their four years in college.

Ultimately, the best path forward for institutions may be taking educational accountability into their own hands. Colleges who do so can create a competitive advantage in the market by demonstrating to prospective students that they will have something to show for their educational investment. Georgia State University has done an amazing job of showcasing the success of its initiatives to help students succeed. Other colleges would do well to follow suit. It’s not only good policy and a way to assess the school’s academic health and graduate outcomes, but can also be an effective marketing tool during a time when colleges will be competing more and more for students. If enough schools adopt this practice, students and parents will have more information at their fingertips to understand the value each college actually offers. This could restore consumer confidence in higher ed institutions.

Every summer, ACTA is privileged to have several interns conduct research for the What Will They Learn?™ project. This is the eighth in a series of guest blogs written by our interns, who chose topics relevant to higher education. Caroline is a rising sophomore at The Citadel, The Military College of South Carolina where is he is a double major in German and political science.


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