Despite Growth in Consumer Information Tools, Data Still Lacking for Students, Panel Says

By Brittany Hackett, Communications Staff

While the increase in data from the recently revamped College Scorecard is welcome, higher education consumers are still likely to struggle with their decisions if that data is not better targeted to their needs, a panel of experts said during an event hosted Thursday by New America.

The event, “Choosing College: How We Can Help Students Make Better Decisions,” coincided with the release of a brief from New America on consumer information. The brief, based on a series of surveys asking students about different aspects of the college decision-making process, stated that nearly two-thirds of new and prospective college students said they have felt lost navigating the abundance of information to select a college that’s the right fit. But despite the confusion, three-quarters of the students surveyed said they found all the information necessary to make their college decisions.

Thursday’s panel discussed the findings detailed in the brief, focusing on how students and families currently use data to make their decisions on higher education, and what can be done to better that decision-making process.

John Pryor, principal at Pryor Education Insights, said that historically the number one reason students have pursued higher education is to get a better job. Since the Great Recession started in 2008, that reason has “jumped about 10 percentage points” among prospective students, Pryor said.

And as college continues to be seen as a necessity to obtain a good career, policymakers and practitioners need to find ways to provide better consumer information to students and families. That information, Pryor said, needs to in part focus on the reasons an individual has for going to college in the first place, such as a better paying job.

Online tools from the Department of Education like the College Scorecard and Net-Price Calculator, as well as similar tools from private companies, offer consumers data on all kinds of factors related to higher education, the panelists said But “so much attention is paid to the nuts and bolts of applying to school” that little focus is given to how that information is presented to consumers, particularly to adult learners, said Kevin Fudge, manager of government relations and community affairs at American Student Assistance.

“We have to dial it back to the main reason a person is going to school,” Fudge said, adding, “If the main reason is to get a better job, what data points are you using to illustrate that?”

The distinction between information targeted at traditional students versus non-traditional students also needs more attention, as the two groups “filter” the same information differently, Pryor said. For example, an 18-year-old prospective student may interpret data on post-graduate earnings differently than a 26-year-old prospective student.

“The real challenge here,” Pryor said, “is to have the amount of information necessary to make that decision [about where to attend college] and then be able to make sense of it in a way that people can access it.”

Carrie Warwick, director of partnerships and policy at the National College Access Network (NCAN), said that in her experience, students are more likely to use online consumer tools if they are working with a college adviser. Online tools, however, are not the only solution to the consumer information problem policymakers face.

“The question is do we have the right data” not only for consumers, but also for Congress to make the decisions needed for the federal financial aid programs,” Warwick said. “There needs to be a larger conversation about what [data] is most important and what do we absolutely need and should add” to help those decisions be made during the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, she added.


Publication Date: 9/18/2015

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