While the academy has been arguing about the carrots and sticks of President Obama’s higher education reform package, little attention has been paid to what The Atlantic refers to as the “magnifying glass”—the proposed “College Scorecard” and “Financial Aid Shopping Sheet”. This is partly because a magnifying glass of sorts already exists. Over the past couple of years, the government has made an effort to provide relevant information to students and families about colleges. These efforts have included net price calculators, College Navigator, and the College Affordability and Transparency Center. But these tools fall short of helping students because they were created by those who already have higher education savvy. It was individual colleges and universities who created net price calculators. Consequently, the calculators tend to be overly complex and vary widely across institutions.
Instead of a “magnifying glass,” the scorecard and shopping sheet should be thought of as a “flashlight”—illuminating important data for students while simultaneously helping them see the way through a complex higher education market. While some students already have the know-how to distinguish between excellent and mediocre institutions, others, especially nontraditional and first generation students, are operating in complete darkness. These students need to get the information and understand it. Even though much of the information is already available, doesn’t mean that it reaches the right people, at the right time, in the right way.
As these new tools are developed, policymakers should think about two important questions:
1) How will these info sheets be distributed?
We shouldn’t make it the student’s responsibility to find these info sheets. We need to proactively get them into their hands where they live, study, and work. This could be done through a series of partnerships with education, social services, employment agencies, and other government organizations. Moreover, when a student lists an institution on their electronic FAFSA, the scorecard should automatically be visible on screen and a hard copy mailed to their listed address.
2) What data should be on the info sheets?
The information that appears on the info sheets will be crucial to helping students make informed decisions. How the information is presented also matters. In this case, less is more and the simpler, the better. For example, on the draft scorecard, I’m not sure how relevant “Carnegie and Control of Institution” is to students, nor am I sure if the comparison charts are helpful. It’s hard for me to know what is useful since I have a lot of higher education know-how. This makes it difficult to see the mock-up through the lens of a first-generation student. While both the scorecard and the shopping sheet are open to public comments, these templates must be put in front of the students who will use them. This means that student affairs administrators/high school counselors/community access organizers who work with a diverse array of students need to be brought into the conversation early.
Unless we take this opportunity to create tools capable of showing the way, these info sheets will be another squandered opportunity like the well-intentioned but poorly-executed net price calculator.
Today, the Senate HELP committee is holding a hearing on Innovations in College Affordability. It will be interesting to see whether the dialogue can finally move beyond the carrots and sticks that have consumed the attention of the academy. It’s time instead to focus on the “flashlights” out there, like the scorecard and shopping sheet, that have the potential to be truly innovative for students who need clear, concise, and relevant information about college outcomes and pricing.