Is Your College a Lemon?

When you're in the market for a new car, you read reviews of various makes, visit dealers and go for a few test-drives. You want to know about things like gas mileage, repair costs and resale value. That kind of careful consumerism is exactly what Education Secretary Margaret Spellings would like to bring to the process of picking a college. "We need to make higher education more accountable," says Spellings, "by opening up the ivory towers and putting information at the fingertips of students and families."

Making data more accessible is a major recommendation of a new report from a commission Spellings created to study the future of higher education. With the annual bill at $40,000 for elite private universities, college is a huge investment and a source of enormous future debt. But it's almost impossible for students to compare schools in differ-ent states to see which ones are really worth those big bucks. Families generally rely on what they hear from relatives, friends and guidance counselors. Rankings, like U.S. News & World Report's influential survey, say something about how hard it is to get into a school, but little about what happens to students afterward. And the news is often not good: Although nearly two thirds of high-school graduates enroll in college, more than 40 percent drop out. Even those who graduate frequently lack the skills necessary to succeed at work.

Spellings and others would like a national database that discloses things like graduation rates, how well students are educated and how much they earn afterward. A few states already provide some of this information, and it's revealing. In a recent paper for Education Sector, a nonpartisan think tank, policy analyst Kevin Carey talks about two such measures: the Collegiate Learning Assessment released by the University of Texas system and Florida's annual profile of public-university graduates. Both show that the best-known campuses aren't always the best place to get an education. In the Texas system, for example, Carey found that the UT campus with the most freshman-to-senior-year academic growth was Permian Basin, which accepts 95 percent of applicants. In Florida, the top earners graduated from Florida International University--not the flagship Gainesville campus.

But don't expect to see this openness nationally any time soon. Because of privacy issues and other concerns, it could take years to get 2,533 four-year schools around the country onboard. "I think it will happen" because families want it, says Spellings, the mother of a college student herself. "Consumer demand is a big part of this." Until then, ask questions and kick a few tires before you enroll.