A Blue Book for Colleges

Why don’t we have a system that tell us whether a $40,000 education is worth more, less or about as much as a $10,000 one? Noodle offers a service that helps you get the best value for your education.

Used car lot

In 1918, Les Kelley opened his car dealership with three automobiles parked in a tiny space in Los Angeles that he had leased from a larger dealer. Kelley, the son of an Arkansas preacher, had paid his way through college by overhauling and selling old cars, and rapidly turned his tiny inventory into a thriving enterprise. Kelley proved adept at estimating a used car’s value, and he began publishing a list of what he was willing to pay for a given vehicle.

Others in the car business relied so heavily on his estimates that in 1926, Kelley published the first Blue Book of Motor Car Values, which, nearly a century later, remains the authoritative source on car values. Today, the company collects data from new and used car dealers and auto auctions to determine what consumers are paying for their vehicles, and makes the information available for free online.

For most people, buying a car is a major, long-term investment, an investment no consumer would make without doing some research. The Kelley Blue Book is proof that people want data-driven information about major purchases - but while it the can help you decide if $44,000 for a brand new 2014 Audi A5 convertible is a good deal, there is no equivalent resource for someone considering spending that $44,000 on a year at Oberlin.

The best we have is college rankings, which are meaningless and harmful for reasons Malcolm Gladwell has explained at length.

Why do consumers not demand outcomes data from their colleges?

And why don’t we have a system that tell us whether a $40,000 education is worth more, less or about as much as a $10,000 one?

We should, and we can.

Everyone wants the same things from our colleges: graduates who (a) do well economically over the next two decades; (b) are healthy and happy; and (c) give back to the community and are good citizens.

Like car values, all of these things are measurable.

To see how college-educated adults are faring, we should survey them about such things as their work history, income, and voting record. To consider these things in light of socioeconomic status, we could collect the zip code in which they lived during high school. We should also ask where the person attended college and the subject in which he or she majored. These long-term outcomes can tell us a great deal about the quality of our colleges and universities.

This might sound impossible, but today’s technology allows for unprecedented reach as well as transparency. In many cases, we already have this data: the Census Bureau asks a plethora of questions about salary, education level, and employment status on the American Community Survey. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration regularly conduct surveys to assess Americans’ physical and mental health. Payscale has huge quantities of salary data.

Access to long-term outcomes data is crucial to helping students make smart decisions about college.

When comparing two colleges that have similar outcomes, a student may opt for the more expensive one because it’s in the right city or excels in a particular subject area. But many students would choose the less expensive option when they can consider outcomes data.

Information about our college choices is especially important when it reveals, for example, that some schools leave students worse off than they were when they enrolled.

While 13% of college students attend for-profit universities, those students account for 47% of all student loan default. The outcomes for these students are so consistently poor that 30 state attorneys general are investigating for-profit colleges, including ITT, Corinthian, Kaplan, and the University of Phoenix.

Over time, higher education outcomes data will drive educators to improve quality and lower cost. To stay competitive, an expensive college will need to make a strong case to consumers that while its outcomes are no better than a cheaper option, it’s worth the money.

Students cannot make informed decisions without a comprehensive source of data that makes the market transparent. Long-term student outcomes are knowable and we can use technology to make them available to learners who want to base their choices in reality, rather than on perceptions about prestige.

Prospective college buyers, like car buyers, will have to drive the market to create the information by demanding it.

Chances are you’ll have the results of your college education choices far longer than any car.

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