Colluding Colleges

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It’s pretty clear that sky-high tuition keeps postsecondary education out of reach for many Americans. It’s not clear what’s behind the ever-rising costs—up nearly 500 percent since 1980. Kevin Carey, policy director of Education Sector, a think tank based in Washington, D.C., contends that the fundamental problem is that consumers are being forced to shop for higher education on the basis of a college’s reputation rather than the quality of the education. 

Colleges are doing whatever they can to lock away “objective . . . information about how well [they] teach,” Carey says. In the absence of clear information, buyers rely on judgments about the reputations of different institutions, which are often based on a school’s wealth, admissions selectivity, and price tag. In a nutshell, the focus on image over educational improvements drives costs up, and drives teaching quality down, he asserts.

The most popular proxy for data on college caliber—the U.S. News and World Report annual rankings—bases 10 percent of a school’s standing on spending per student, with additional points awarded for higher faculty salaries. “If an innovative college found a way to become more efficient and charge less while maintaining academic quality, its U.S. News ranking would actually go down,” Carey writes. So, colleges spend huge sums on new facilities, state-of-the-art fitness centers, big-name researchers, and winning sports teams. Such visible investments help buoy a school’s reputation, but they don’t help students learn.
Beyond the top 10 percent of institutions, American higher education is a “sea of mediocrity,” Carey writes. (In 2006, there were 11 million college students enrolled in 2,600 four-year institutions.) The average graduation rate for the less selective half of American four-year colleges is a woeful 45 percent. For low-income students, the situation is even bleaker—less than 40 percent get a degree within six years of enrolling. And many college degrees are empty qualifications: Less than one-third of adults with a B.A. can compare and contrast two newspaper editorials, and more than a quarter can’t perform basic math calculations.
Carey says the federal government must tie programs that help students pay tuition (such as Pell Grants) to colleges’ commitment to providing objective information on their institutional performance. Hundreds of colleges already participate in assessments such as the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) and the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA). The NSSE asks a sample of students how many books and papers were assigned, how many hours they spent preparing for class, whether they had group projects, etc. CLA test takers, freshmen and seniors, write long analytical essays.
However, Carey writes, the potent higher-education lobby has aggressively resisted efforts to make the results of such tests public, and Congress has refused to take even baby steps in that direction. But only increased transparency will push colleges to do what they are meant to do: teach.

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