Making College-Bound Students Smart Consumers

04/15/2011 04:08 pm ET | Updated Jun 15, 2011

A sure sign that spring is upon us, more certain than daffodils, cherry blossoms,or Cadbury Creme Eggs, arrives every March through May in the mailboxes of high school seniors around the country: college admissions decision letters. Parents and students await these letters with crossed fingers and often with a bit of trepidation. Because the questions that come right after "Did I get in?" are often "Can we afford it?" and "Is it worth the price?"

These questions are even more important as college tuition continues to rise. The sticker price at many college is over $50,000 per year, and the average debt for students graduating with a bachelor's degree is over $23,000. Yet families are often torn between the overwhelming financial burden an expensive college presents and the notion that a brand name school is the gateway to a better future.

I recently spoke to the parent of a high school senior who expressed anxiety about her child's impending college choice. Even though the family received financial aid from their top choice college and could pay the remaining tuition with help from loans, they still wondered whether it was worth their hard-earned money and the debt the child would incur.

Meanwhile, in Washington, policymakers are investigating a very different version of college choice--low-income, first-generation students choosing costly for-profit colleges that turn out to provide very little educational opportunity.

In both of these cases, better information about college cost, the likely benefits of attendance and its long-term consequences could help the students and their families make better decisions. But colleges often do not give consumers the information they need. This is either because the pressure to market themselves to students runs counter to giving objective information or because the most useful information involves comparisons across colleges.

For these reasons, good information about college options should be a matter of public policy. Better college choices can help students achieve their educational goals while also ensuring that the taxpayer dollars that go toward public colleges and federal financial aid are well spent. Unfortunately most efforts to give consumers information about college simply dump data onto a website. College information should be easy to find, easy to understand, and targeted toward the goal the information should accomplish.

In broad terms, that goal is helping students make better choices. There are several ways to improve decision making, however. For instance, information can help protect students from poor-performing programs by disclosing key data or help students compare institutions to make the best choice among them. It can also encourage students to choose educational programs that are the best fit for their learning styles, aptitudes, and educational goals.

Colleges should be required to post information such as graduation rates, job placement rates, and average debt of graduates on the front page of their websites, on application materials, and on enrollment forms. This would disclose to students the risks involved in enrolling in a particular program.

This kind of "buyer beware" information would ensure that prospective students know, for example, that Bunker Hill Community College in Boston, Massachusetts has a 13 percent graduation rate for first-time students. That information is important whether they decide to enroll or not.

The information students and parents receive also must be comparable to help them make decisions among colleges. Right now, colleges can format much of the information they publish in any way they please. Instead, they should develop a common format for financial aid letters so that students can easily compare their aid packages across institutions.

In addition, programs that give families college information early lay the groundwork for good decision making by ensuring that the college choice isn't something that sneaks up on families in the senior year of high school.

Next month, proud families will descend upon college campuses to watch their children receive diplomas in everything from philosophy to electrical engineering to criminal justice. Those graduates are only beginning to realize the true costs and benefits of their college degrees as they take those diplomas for a test drive in the job market and begin monthly payments on student loans. My hope is that they won't look back on their admissions decisions and think "If I'd only known then what I know now."

Julie Morgan is a Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress.