An illustration of three people standing on a scale being balanced by money

Transparency in Higher Education

With application season in full swing, prospective students and their families are actively engaged in researching and assessing the worth of a given college’s value proposition. And as we frequently like to point out, families examine three main factors in order to calculate value: their cost to attend, the quality of the educational experience, and the resulting outcomes. But unfortunately, it’s not so easy for them to find the right numbers to enter into their equation.

In a higher education marketplace that has become more price sensitive, families are considering cost earlier in their college search process. The U.S. Department of Education has stepped up to aid them, first by mandating that colleges include a net price calculator on their websites, then by relaunching the College Scorecard with better financial data, and now by moving up the date for filing the FAFSA. Yet because net price is such a moving target from year to year and from family to family (especially at private colleges), these tools haven’t allayed much of the financial uncertainty among families with college-bound students.

Then there’s the question of what they’ll get for their money. While the consensus within the higher education industry is that college ranking publications are not good at answering that question, the rankers are trying to innovate to get better at it, as The New York Times points out in “How Much Graduates Earn Drives More College Rankings.” States have a vested interest in finding such answers, as well, and are creating ways to match graduate data from their departments of education with wage data from their departments of employment and economic development. This allows them to report, via a web-based searchable tool (see Minnesota’s as an example), the earnings of the graduates from institutions in their state who stayed to work in their state, by institution.

The outside push to equip families with reliable numbers for making their ROI calculations is only getting stronger. So it is incumbent upon colleges and universities to proactively and candidly deliver such information themselves if they want to distinguish their institution in the marketplace and genuinely enhance the perceived value of their institutions.


Cost Transparency

“The Unnecessarily Mysterious Cost of College” looks at why it’s so difficult for families to know their real price in advance. (The Atlantic)

Quality Transparency 

“Consider using NSSE to guide the college search instead of the glamorous but empty rankings of colleges,” this article advises. (Forbes)

Outcomes Transparency

States and universities are finding ways to track and report outcomes at the student level until the federal government can too. (Inside Higher Ed)


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Over the years, many colleges and universities implemented a “Halloween” communication strategy of masking the facts about what the investment expense of attending their college really was. Disguised costs are no longer sustainable in this age of digital information gathering and given the expectation of genuine transparency. Due diligence is a prevalent behavior in today’s marketplace as students and families seek facts and substance to support their investment decisions. Now is not the time for colleges to engage in “trick or treating,” but to unmask the cost, quality, and outcomes in their institution’s value proposition.