Colleges Face a Reality Check From Powerful New Tools in Applicants’ Hands

Twice in the last week and a half I have been seated next to a recent college dropout on an airplane flight.

One left Ohio University after a semester last fall, and the other dropped out of a performing-arts college in Los Angeles after two years. Both had accumulated debt. One of the former students was about to start work on a cruise ship, and the other hoped to perform on a cruise ship. Both had the same goal: to earn enough money to go back to college eventually.

Neither of the students quite knew why they had gone to college in the first place except that it was expected of them by parents and counselors. Both had done minimal research on the institutions they eventually selected. They didn’t pay much attention, if any, to the numbers they should have considered in making their choices: graduation rates, net prices, how much they would pay each month on their student loans, the default rate on loans, and how much they might earn after graduation.

Those numbers, when viewed together, give some indication to prospective students about how they might fare at a particular college. But higher-education officials find fault with several of the measures, especially judging a college based on the earnings of its graduates.

It’s worth remembering, though, that those debates are often led by elite colleges, which for the most part graduate students who go on to successful careers. Those colleges are not the types of places my two recent seatmates ever considered. They needed easy-to-use tools to figure out if a college was a good “financial fit” for them and to balance price with the likelihood of success.

Applying such financial metrics to higher education is often framed as trying to measure the “return on investment,” or ROI, of a college degree. Measuring a degree as you would a stock investment makes many academics cringe.

But supplying prospective students and their parents with information to balance what is now a very emotional decision is about more than just ROI. It’s about helping make better-informed choices on a range of questions: Is the least expensive college the best deal if I don’t graduate in four years? How does my monthly debt payment compare to my estimated earnings? What are the chances I’ll default on my loan?

The answers to those questions and more can be found in a new Web site, College Reality Check (, designed to help parents and students easily sort through the many factors they need to consider when choosing a college. Produced by The Chronicle with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the tool allows users to find out how individual colleges measure up on net price, graduation rates, debt, default rates, and graduate earnings. Users can compare up to five colleges from among the nearly 3,600 in the database at the same time.

College Reality Check is part of a new collection of consumer tools, released within the last several months, that put students on more of an even playing field with colleges, which know so much more about applicants during the admissions process. Along with the federal government’s College Scorecard and efforts in the states to link employment and college-graduation data, the new data tools offer critical information to students that perhaps will help ensure that they avoid colleges where they might drop out or take on too much debt.

As tuition prices and student debt continue to climb and data aggregation and visualization improve, the number and quality of those consumer tools will only increase. So in the long run, college officials who don’t like being judged on such measures might best focus on improving their numbers. My two seatmates in recent weeks deserve that much.

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