Sticker Price 101
Why can't the government make it easier to compare college costs?
Again, the issue is not a lack of data as much as a lack of easy-to-find, easy-to-compare data, an aid to overwhelmed students getting ready to commit thousands of dollars to an institution. "The process of college choice involves simultaneously ranking options in multiple ways, relying on incomplete and uncertain information, and receiving little or no support for interpreting the facts that are available," writes Harvard education economist Bridget Terry Long. In a paper copublished by the Hamilton Project and Center for American Progress, she suggests that the federal government pull together a "college scorecard," giving just the facts, and all of the facts, about schools' costs and benefits: graduation and retention rates, alumni satisfaction rates, cost of attendance statistics, alumni salary and employment data, and loan data.
It might seem like overkill. Isn't a lot of this information out there? Don't students just need to Google to figure it out? Doesn't the government already run College Navigator and other sites to help students choose?
It is true that we have tremendous amounts of data about higher education. But it is also true that too often students end up misled, overwhelmed, or confused attempting to gauge the different options. Big, expensive purchases require smart, educated customers. That is why the government created the new fuel-efficiency labels. It is also why the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is rolling out simplified, standardized home-mortgage forms. It should not, after all, take a Ph.D. in statistics to get through the college application process.
Annie Lowrey, formerly Slate’s Moneybox columnist, is economic policy reporter for the New York Times.
Photograph by Thinkstock.