Quis Potest Custodiet Ipsos Custodes? (Who Can Watch the Watchmen?)

Over the course of our continuing series leading up to the release of our report, Leaders & Laggards: A State-by-State Report Card on Public Postsecondary Education, we’ve looked over several aspects of what’s going on in higher education. In part one, we explored the high cost of producing degrees. Part two examined the low completion rates that contribute to those exorbitant price tags. The most recent iteration discussed state policies that impact both completion rates and higher education finance. Today, we’re taking the next step by looking into the practices of states and institutions in hiding these inconvenient truths from the public eye.

Let’s say you’re a student trying to decide which college is right for you. You’re about to invest an amount of money equivalent of anywhere from one to four luxury vehicles, and will very likely take on a significant amount of debt in order to do so. How do you decide where to go? Of course, you will consider things such as the school culture, the type of campus, and other sorts of quality-of-life factors that can’t be well put quantitatively, but what other sources of information do you have at your disposal? Better yet, does any of it tell you about the quality of the education you’ll receive for your money or the quality of life you can expect after graduation?

Unfortunately, there aren’t many options. U.S. News and World Report does their much discussed (and often maligned) rankings, but frankly, that tells you more about what goes into the school (the students and the money) than what comes out of it. They don’t offer this information because they believe it’s the best way to judge schools—they do it because it’s pretty much the only way at this point in time. Fewer than half of all states report labor market outcomes (student employment after graduation) to the public for either their two- or four-year institutions, giving students very little information about what to expect post-graduation. And just a third of states report learning outcomes—which are otherwise known as “the entire point of going to college.”

So that leaves a handful of states that have some great information you can use to figure out where you want to go to school, right? It’s not quite that simple, unfortunately, as you actually have to be able to find that information. And that’s where things get tricky, since just one state (Texas) actually received full credit on our three-point evaluation of higher education consumer transparency metric for both two- and four-year institutions. The only other system to earn a perfect score was Connecticut’s four-year dissemination tool. So unless you’re going to school in Texas or plan on earning a bachelor’s degree in Connecticut, you’re pretty much out of luck if you want to find out even basic information about a public institution’s performance.

Policymakers and researchers, on the other hand, have it ever so slightly easier. Since we didn’t consider 100 page, dense PDFs to meet the definition of “consumer friendly,” a fair amount of states didn’t get credit in this category. For public accountability purposes, on the other hand, the dense material can be useful, if not entirely practical. For four-year institutions, policymakers could get their hands on adequate—if not robust—information in 35 states, while only about half of states could say the same about their two-year institutions.

With such an intense lack of information available about the performance of our colleges and universities, the poor showing on outcomes metrics really shouldn’t come as a surprise. You can’t hope to improve when you don’t know what to improve. And you can’t expect the safe keepers of the public interest (policymakers) to keep institutions in check if they are not given the information to do it. Likewise, students cannot hope to make informed decisions on their future if they have no tools to do so.

All of this adds up to a series of perverse incentives or “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” choices for institutional leaders as well. For example, they can invest more money into learning resources or career awareness, which will make a direct impact on the actual education and student outcomes. Or they can invest money in a rock climbing wall that attracts more students to the school. The former will never show up in a report or be measured meaningfully as things currently stand, while the latter will undoubtedly raise the stature of the university in most college rankings (which in turn pleases trustees, faculty, and alumni alike). It doesn’t take a genius to figure out which investment is wiser, from this perspective, and it should be no surprise which choice most college presidents would make.

Simply put, that has to change. If we, as a society, want more from our colleges and universities, we have to start paying attention to factors that matter. We have to start measuring the things that count, or we will continue to value the things that don't. This is where states and business leaders have a responsibility to lead in demanding better transparency and more accountability for our public institutions because it is clear that the institutions themselves have little incentive to do what is right.

Of course, you can find out how your state is performing in all of our metrics on June 19th, when we officially unveil Leaders & Laggards. We hope you’ll join us, and you can start by registering for the event here for free.

Domenic Giandomenico is Director of Education and Workforce Programs for ICW