Adding Important Transparency to Higher Education

By Watson Scott Swail, President & CEO, Educational Policy Institute/EPI International

Happy Canada Day and Happy Independence Day everyone,

In the late 1990s, I worked for the College Board and co-directed the Trends in Student Aid and Trends in College Pricing reports.  These reports, to this day, provide educators, researchers, and policymakers with a summary of how much college and university is and what available aid, from the institutional, private, state, and federal levels exists to help students pay tuition, fees, and other assorted costs.

Back 25 years ago, the College Board listed the most expensive and least expensive colleges in America. It stopped doing so when Board membership suggested it wasn’t a very good idea to identify your membership as the most expensive in the nation.

Of course, a lot has changed since that time. Now, colleges and universities live, in part, by the Chivas Regal effect. That is, the more expensive they are, the higher their perceived value and ROI. They simply “must” be better. We know this isn’t even close to true, but people believe it. We make similar assumptions when we book hotels, buy cars, and even pay for restaurant meals. It must be better.

In the late 1990s, I had asked that we, the College Board, do it again. I thought it was important that people knew what was what. Unfortunately, my request was summarily denied: you can’t showcase “bad” information about the member colleges. I thought it was crap then; crap now.

However, this week, the US Department of Education unveiled the College Affordability and Transparency Center which does exactly what the Board used to do and what I proposed back in 1999. The site allows you to chose, by sector, the most expensive, least expensive, and lowest and highest net price (price minus all gift aid, on average) institutions in the United States.

The purpose of the tool is to allow students, parents, and others to look at the various prices of institutions around the US. Understand this: it does not tell us anything about institutional quality, perceived or otherwise. It does not tell us about ROI on the investment of a college education (as measured by average salaries and employability of graduates). That needs to happen next.

The utility of this tool is limited, but serves to provide additional transparency on the rubic’s cube of higher education. Good work, ED.

Check it out:

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