Wednesday, February 27, 2013

More on holding colleges accountable

As a general rule, I think free markets work pretty well.  But they tend not to work so well when buyers lack critical information before they engage in a transaction.  Sometimes the private market does an excellent job of filling information gaps; examples include online reviews or car magazines.  Other times critical information is costly for outsiders to collect, (calorie counts, condition of a used car) and government regulation requiring disclosure can result in more informed decisions when the cost of data collection and dissemination is low compared to the gains from the information. 

The private market (US News) provides lots of data about colleges, but most of the guides and rankings focus on inputs (class size, SAT scores) rather than outcomes (learning, careers).  Senators Marco Rubio (R, FL) and Ron Wyden (D, OR) -- note the bipartisanship -- have introduced a bill ("The Right to Know Before You Go Act") that would require colleges to tabulate and publish placement rates and salaries by major.  Students and their families would then be better positioned to decide for themselves whether college is a wise investment. 

Obtaining and tabulating such data will not be an easy task.  Not all students will report post-graduation plans and salaries.  WSJ notes that publishing fresh data each year by major will raise privacy concerns in small departments and programs; a three year average makes more sense than annual numbers.  Ten states are already releasing such information; the other 40 (and DC) should join them. 

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