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One College Spills ‘The Things Other Colleges Don’t Tell You’

As you may have heard, not everyone is convinced that college is a good investment. In his role as vice president for enrollment, W. Kent Barnds has to change some minds, at least about Illinois’s Augustana College, where he works.

Colleges have responded to widespread skepticism about their value in a number of ways. Some have cut their prices. Others have embraced transparency. One plans to show admitted students upfront what they’ll pay for all four years. Several explain to their students that they all get a price discount from donations to the institution.

Mr. Barnds took a different approach. He came up with a new publication that displays the facts he believes prospective students want to know but often cannot find—”the things other colleges don’t tell you.” “There is a desire on the part of families and students for some level of transparency,” Mr. Barnds says. Too often, he says, colleges’ response is “just trust us on this.”

In addition to being featured on the college’s Web site, the publication will be mailed to about 300 guidance counselors and to leaders at 500 to 600 colleges with whom Augustana’s president, Steven C. Bahls, corresponds. Some of those presidents and other top administrators might see it as a model, Mr. Barnds hopes.

The publication, called “The Augustana Story,” is written in a conversational tone. Its opening sentence is: “Yes, we’ve heard the critics.”

It lays out data on student outcomes, faculty teaching loads, and how the college spends tuition revenue. Those are all measures the college has tracked internally for years, Mr. Barnds says, but hasn’t broadcast before. “We want people to know what happens here,” he says.

That includes some things Augustana isn’t proud of—for example, that white students stay enrolled and graduate at higher rates than do their nonwhite classmates. And that students’ average debt at graduation is creeping up. Those are things the college is working to improve, Mr. Barnds says. Being open about them, he hopes, will build trust.

Not all of the college’s senior administrators were so sure about including some of the data, he says. They worried, for instance, that sharing ranges for faculty and staff salaries might invite criticism that they’re too high. Another concern: The list of overlap colleges to which prospective Augustana students also apply puts the college in a realistic rather than aspirational light.

All of that leaves Augustana “somewhat exposed,” Mr. Barnds says. Ideally, he’d like to see counselors who receive the mailing pressure other colleges to send them something similar.

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