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Last week a reader posted a comment with the intriguing suggestion of having “college critics” as we have “movie critics.” Although the suggestion resonated with me, I was challenged on how to develop it. The movie critic has the advantage of reviewing an entire movie. The “college critic” lacks this advantage. The college critic cannot enroll just to review the teaching, besides evaluating one or two professors tells us little about the college. Another reader agreed the “buyer” of a college education needed more information and asked me “Do you have any ideas?”

The question: Is there any valid method to assess colleges comparatively, objectively and meaningfully in terms of what a student desires? I think so.

All post-secondary institutions (including Capitalized Universities) that participate in Federal financial aid programs are mandated to report some of their data to the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). This is the Department of Education’s main data source on universities. Participation in IPEDS is a requirement for the 6,787 institutions (in year 2008-2009) that were eligible for Title IV federal student financial aid programs, such as Pell Grants or Stafford Loans. No IPEDS data, no Federal money!

IPEDS defines itself as consisting of “institution-level data that can be used to describe trends in postsecondary education at the institution, state, and/or national levels.” In addition to describing trends, I argue that these data could be used to compare institutions within a certain category and a specific geographic area.

The Feds say that “researchers can use IPEDS to analyze information on (1) enrollments of undergraduates, first-time freshmen, and graduate and first-professional students by race/ethnicity and sex; (2) institutional revenue and expenditure patterns by source of income and type of expense; (3) completions (awards) by type of program, level of award, race/ethnicity, and sex; (4) characteristics of postsecondary institutions, including tuition, room and board charges, and calendar systems; (5) status of career and technical education programs; and (6) other issues of interest.” Imagine the possibilities.

I envision a document (let’s call it a brochure) that all of the 6,787 institutions WILL HAVE TO provide their applicants BEFORE they make their decision to enroll. This brochure would provide the following key information to the applicant: 1) how many students enrolled and how many re-enrolled the second year, 2) how many years does it take for the average student to get a degree, 3) how much does the institution charge per year (tuition, room and board and fees), 4) what percentage of the college’s budget is spent on faculty salaries, 5) how many full-time faculty per student and maybe more. These indicators will appear in the brochure in comparison with the 5 equivalent universities that offer the same type of degrees (comparables).

It would also help if the brochure would indicate why the information provided is important. It could say something like “Universities with increasing enrollments but report large attrition after the first year, may not be providing what they promised.” Or “Universities that spent less that XX% (the year’s median of all reporting) of their income in teaching costs, may not be providing a good value for the money you are paying them.” Or “Those institutions that spent more that 10% in marketing costs, may be using a greater portion of your money than average to attract other students.” And so on.

I would mandate that this brochure (and a student’s signature stating that the student has received it) would be given by EVERY university to EVERY applicant. In addition, when the potential student, parent or significant other logs-on to apply for financial aid, or sends a paper version of the FISA (student aid form) to the government, the government must send them a copy of the brochure for that university. A copy of the brochure will be required at every university’s home page. The IPEDS’s web site will also have it available.

That’s one idea. Might this help? Would this information –as objective as one can make it—be useful to the potential student, in order for the student to determine the broad outlines of the quality of the educational service he/she is going to receive? I think so.

If after reading the brochure, the student, the parent (or sometimes the employer who reimburses the student) decides this is the place to enroll, then they would have decided having some essential facts presented to them, comparing at least five institutions in the general area. After reading the brochure we can say that caveat emptor (buyer beware) can be applied; now the buyer has been made aware.