“If only I’d known then what I know now” seems to be a common lament from college graduates these days. We hear it from students who attended for-profit institutions only to find that their skills are not marketable but their debt will haunt them for the next 30 years. But we also hear it from law school graduates who feel their institutions sold them on the dream of a $150,000 salary when all they got was $150,000 in student loan debt and a temp job reviewing documents. Students’ lack of information when making college choices costs individuals the opportunity to create a better future for themselves and it costs taxpayers when students use federal grants and loans and state subsidies to pursue overpriced or underperforming educational programs.
Better and more timely information must be part of any strategy to get more students into and through college while also addressing the problems of increasing loan defaults and students with credentials but no jobs. CAP advocates for an expanded federal role in providing information resources to college-bound students. But the federal government’s approach to providing information must fundamentally change from dumping data onto websites to targeting information to individuals, taking into account the job that information should accomplish. In broad terms, that job is helping students make better choices, but there are several ways to improve choice making. For instance, we can protect students from poor-performing programs by disclosing key data, or we can help students compare across institutions to make the best choice among them. Also, we can encourage students to choose programs that are a best fit for their learning style, aptitudes, and educational goals, or to become more conscious of college options well before they make the choice of where to enroll.
So far, the federal government approaches all of these improvements to college choice by making data available in an indiscriminate way through postings on federal websites and limited disclosures on college marketing materials. And there is very little evidence that students and families even look at this information, let alone integrate it into their choices. To ensure that information is more effective, it must be organized around the ways it can improve choice.
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