Originally published: The Washington Post | By Jeff Selingo | Nov 7, 2016
A college degree has long promised a better job, a better career, and a better life. The anxiety that students and parents have about college is typically limited to the front end of the process: getting into school, figuring out how to pay the tuition bill, and choosing the right major.
But today there is a lot of noise around the degree as a recognizable signal of job readiness. As more and more people are earning a bachelor’s degree, employers seem to be trusting it less and less.
Yet every college claims in its admissions materials that its “unique” style of education prepares its students for the job market. Trying to separate the marketing rhetoric from reality is nearly impossible for parents and students. It’s why college rankings play an outsized role in determining the quality of higher education, even though none of them actually evaluate what happens in the classroom or even outside of it during an undergraduate’s career.
Recently, I wrote about efforts by employers to better assess the claims colleges and universities make about their quality. Employers, for instance, are increasingly choosing specific campuses where workers can use tuition benefits instead of giving them a blank check to use anywhere. Meanwhile, federal regulators are weighing rules about whether graduates can get their loans forgiven if they were misled by institutions about their job prospects.
But neither solution is very helpful to students and parents at this time of year as they attempt to compare colleges during the application process. That’s why another approach under discussion by higher-education officials might prove helpful to students and parents trying to assess the quality of colleges in the future: an audit of the assertions that colleges make about their quality.
Colleges already have their financial statements audited, of course. But colleges make plenty of other claims to prospective students that no one ever really checks out — from the percentage of students who land a job after graduation to the quality of classroom instruction.
“There are parents and students who are interested in knowing whether the college they’re considering is worth it and they want an independent third party to answer that question,” Brendan LeBlanc, a partner at Ernst & Young in Boston, told me recently.
Such non-financial audits are now commonplace in the corporate world, especially around cybersecurity and sustainability. LeBlanc said that almost any claim made by an organization can be audited as long as there is some sort of objective, suitable criteria by which to measure it. As an example, he cited McDonald’s, which several years ago promised that its popular Happy Meals would include water, milk and juice, as well as a side salad, fruit, or vegetable in place of fries.
Critics saw the announcement as little more than a marketing ploy and questioned the sincerity of the promise. After all, how would McDonald’s, with more than 35,000 restaurants around the world, ensure that every Happy Meal included healthy options? It ended up that the auditors couldn’t verify that statement was true in every outlet for every Happy Meal, so McDonald’s had to revise its promise that healthy options would be the “default configuration” of the meal.
“For an audit to work there has to be trust and confidence that the same rules and standards are being applied so that someone can make a judgment,” LeBlanc said. “It’s providing some credibility to a process.”
Ernst & Young and other large auditing firms aren’t the only organizations trying to figure out a better way to measure the quality of a college.
As Goldie Blumenstyk recently reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education, the Center for American Progress has proposed a new approach to evaluate a college’s financial health and students’ ability to get jobs and pay off their loans, with the Department of Education acting as the auditor under such a system. Entangled Solutions, a higher-education consultancy, is asking for input on creating an independent organization to oversee quality, much the same way that the Financial Accounting Standards Board monitors corporate-accounting standards.
All these proposals are aimed at fixing the broken self-regulated accreditation system of higher education that continues to let colleges operate with low graduation rates or that produce graduates deep in debt without any job prospects. Quality control that relies on accreditation doesn’t help students and their families make good choices up front when they are choosing colleges.
Higher education is an “experience good,” meaning students don’t know what they are buying until after they experience it. The result is a college search process in which students and their families make important decisions based on haphazard or incomplete information. Any effort to bring better consumer information to the market should be encouraged.
Jeffrey J. Selingo is the author of There Is Life After College, about how today’s graduates launch into their careers. He is former editor of the Chronicle of Higher Education, a professor of practice at Arizona State University, a trustee of Ithaca College and a visiting scholar at Georgia Tech’s Center for 21st Century Universities.