06/26/2012 03:39 pm ET Updated Aug 26, 2012

A Father's Reminder About Investing and College Costs


Hall of Shame? Ordered up by Congress to embarrass colleges?

Mainstream higher education news organizations -- if there could or should be such things -- seem content to label the college-costs lists released this week by the U.S. Department of Education as the offspring of some conspiratorial body intent on undercutting the good work of American higher education.

Although it is obviously impossible to quantify an educational experience, the rankings from the College Affordability and Transparency Center -- perhaps most college rankings, in fact -- offer valuable information about important components of quality institutions and reflect, more broadly, the extremely competitive nature of higher education.

Overall, however, families will be best served by the rankings when they fully reject the ostensible premise that underlies their worth: that rankings facilitate transparency, which is in short supply.

Rankings are possible precisely because transparency is present.

We -- and I'm speaking, more, as the father of a bright and free-spirited college-bound young lady, than as an accountant-turned-college president -- are bombarded with credible information about college effectiveness, about the value of an education, about the value of specific disciplines, about novel housing options, powerful civic engagement programs, and always, always, about college costs.

We do not lack data; we lack time.

But, again, speaking personally, I know in my core that an investment of time is the single most important outlay our family will need to make if my daughter is to find her way to the college experience that is most likely to help her develop her unique interests, skills and talents.

Although accountants and statisticians can certainly create marketable lists about colleges, colleges simply aren't given naturally to rankings, they are given to people. Each institution represents a community of people committed (some more, some less) to a mission. And, as communities, they must be experienced to be understood.

We test drive cars, ask to look at and hold our friends' smartphones, and try on shoes. For most personal choices, most of us realize that we need to figure out for ourselves which models to purchase. Recognizing that a third or more of college students will transfer to a different institution at least once in their college careers, it seems obvious that many students eventually determine that the college that initially caught their attention was not a good fit.

At the risk of sounding "fatherly," by which I mean "old," I persistently urge my daughter and the many prospective students who actually seem to want my advice, to learn as much as they possibly can about a variety of colleges before forming their short lists.

Amazingly, some 75 percent of students who apply for the federal student aid never apply to more than one institution. Apply and go. It might work for summer camp, but it's not a good strategy for picking a college.

After building a reasonable short list, I advise them to dig into the details. Investigate. Study the rankings (they're not evil). Read the promotional material online and in print. But don't stop when you get to the last page.

Connect the dots. Supplement the information that is pushed toward you with information you pull on your own. Use Google or LinkedIn or other platforms just now emerging to uncover alumni stories. Ask questions that embarrass administrators. Ask questions that make them beam. Stroll on the campus mall; have a fruit smoothie in the local coffee shop. See if you can find a place to park.

Invest time before you invest dollars.

Financial considerations may be transparent, but understanding the pleasures and burdens of personal choice requires a bit practice.