03/05/2012 07:03 pm ET Updated May 05, 2012

Count Colleges Like Calories

It's almost spring, and my daughter's fancy has turned to the mailbox. Along with high school seniors across the country, Brennan is checking for college acceptance letters.

My husband and I are thinking about college, too. We want to compare what the schools offer and how quickly they will chew up our college savings. We would have an easier time comparing junk food.

As American consumers, we know what we put in our mouths. Our food has nutritional labels noting calories, fat, and sodium content that help us make informed decisions.

Parents and prospective students could use some similar help when it comes to making informed decisions about college.

Despite a wealth of information on the internet and a stack of guidebooks, even the savviest of the college-bound will be challenged. There is no single location or easy-to-digest format for all the publicly available data on tuition, completion rates, and job prospects.

President Barack Obama's "college scorecard" proposal can help. It would rank higher education institutions according to cost, graduation rates and future earnings. Think of it as a spotlight that illuminates important realities -- particularly for nontraditional and first generation community college students -- that otherwise grope in the dark.

In Illinois, we welcome this transparency and accountability initiative. Legislation is being introduced this spring to create user-friendly college consumer reports listing tuition, completion, and job placement rates, as well as data on persistence and transfers.

Knowing the numbers on completion is significant. For every 100 students who start college as a full-time student in Illinois, only 37 will graduate with the degree they were seeking -- even if you give them extra time. That's an extra semester for certificate seekers, an extra year to earn an associate degree, or two extra years to earn a bachelor's degree.

Students need cost and timelines broken down by institution to make good choices, so they can move into the workforce on time and with less debt.

Some Illinois community colleges have a head start on report cards. City Colleges of Chicago is making transparency a hallmark of its reinvention. Carl Sandburg College in Galesburg posts facts and figures in an "Institutional Research" section of its website, while McHenry County College in Crystal Lake offers a "Consumer Info" link on its homepage that illustrates student outcomes.

A statewide education working group is coming together to recommend a standard consumer report so it is easier to find and compare information across colleges. The same measures should apply to all schools that enroll students on state or federal financial aid, be they two-year, four-year, public, private or for-profit institutions.

The consumer report will benefit another set of folks -- taxpayers. We all pay for public higher education, and having better information will help us hold schools accountable. We need to see which schools are succeeding in areas such as degree completion, costs and career placement. Measuring will allow us to identify our successes. Sharing that information will allow us to replicate the best our state has to offer.

This renewed commitment to transparency and accountability is critical to building a strong economy on Illinois. Right now we have unemployment that is too high while at the same time we have unfilled jobs. The challenge is not a lack of workers; it's a lack of available skill.

As more students earn high-quality career certificates and college degrees, we will close that gap. And we know that to be competitive in the future we will need to have even more workers -- around 60 percent of our workforce -- with those college credentials. Greater transparency in higher education is a low-cost method to help students make the most of their options.

Let's make it as easy to compare colleges as it is to count calories. Our state's economic health depends on it.