Ever since the White House introduced its College Scorecard, critics have emerged from every corner (including my colleague Jeff Selingo on this blog yesterday). The Scorecard is incomplete and does not evaluate the proper measures, we are told. Selecting a university and judging quality based on five variables limits and insults what a college education is all about. The data is too general and does not identify outcomes for specific types of students. These criticisms are similar to those that have swirled around the U.S. News and World Report college rankings for years: They’re too shallow, reward the wrong things, and don’t tell students what they really need to know to make informed choices.
But if better consumer information is what we’re really after (and it should be), we did not need the College Scorecard in the first place. Going after U.S. News and World Report is similarly misguided: It, too, uses a limited number of measures to rank schools, perhaps tacitly assuming that all students looking to attend liberal arts colleges, or regional universities in the south for example, are more or less looking for the same qualities in a specific school.
What we actually need are solutions that deliver better, customized consumer information. These solutions would not rank schools so much as find schools that are right for specific types of students. We need creativity and a mix of objective data and student reviews that would recommend programs for an adult who left college years ago without graduating, but who now requires a degree in accounting to move ahead. This same solution could also refer a graduating high school senior who wants to study music, preferably at a liberal arts college on the west coast, to suitable schools.
Some of these solutions are already popping up online, but they are not as robust or comprehensive as I describe (College Prowler is one such site, and another is ConnectEDU, which has recently experienced some controversy*). These sites could be nonprofit or for-profit ventures. In K-12 education, the market of providers is more developed. For example, many parents already use GreatSchools to learn more about local schools in their community, using a wide range of data on the site to make choices, customize their searches, and learn what other parents think about competing schools. But there is no comparable GreatColleges site.
One point of caution: We do not need the federal government to take this project on. While the College Scorecard has a portion of the functionality described above, the feds generally lack the creativity to really tackle this challenge. The education department could, however, improve the underlying data that social entrepreneurs use to develop technologies that provide better customized information to students.
Surely other resources exist that have potential to fill this gap (Jeff mentions, for example, that he and The Chronicle are planning one). I hope a few more innovations arrive soon. It would be a lot more helpful to students than another Scorecard.
* Updated since original posting.
Photo Credit: Evan Vucci, AP