College scorecard scores touchdown for students

Friday, September 18th, 2015

Much has been made this week about the U.S. Department of Education's unveiling of the new college scorecard. While some in academia are bemoaning the methodology and the limited conclusions that can be drawn from the data, I applaud it - not for its perfection - but for its promise.

Does the scorecard provide a complete picture of the experience and quality a student can expect at any given institution? No. Are there improvements and refinements that can be made in future editions? Sure.

But the scorecard does something remarkable. It puts students and families at the center of the decision making process by giving them a simple tool to enable them to be better consumers in the higher-education marketplace.

For the first time, students have a searchable database that lets them compare two- and four-year public and private institutions nationwide. In just an instant, they'll discover the price of college, expected debt, chances of graduating and their expected earnings once they earn their degree.

In an economy that is still in recovery mode, this is exactly the kind of information students want in order to decide where it's best to invest their time, talent and treasure in pursuit of a degree.

In the bigger picture, introducing additional transparency in the higher education marketplace is welcome. Basic economics teaches us that markets work better when information is readily available to consumers. For too long, higher education has suffered from a lack of transparency regarding the cost of college and outcomes.

Consumers have a right to expect institutions that receive public money to be highly accountable and transparent. That is why Arizona's public universities make available on our regents website outcomes in more than 30 areas of student success, academic quality and research, so students can assess how well they'll do if they choose one of our schools. And for the record, we're proud that the scorecard shows our schools are more affordable and graduate more students who earn more than the national average.

So, let's give credit where credit is due. United States Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan has rightly chosen market forces over government forces, information over regulation and, most importantly, students over the status quo. He realizes that imposing more regulatory code merely escalates costs and perpetuates bureaucracy that does more to drive compliance than quality while offering little to protect consumers.

In contrast, access to information has the power to reduce costs and improve quality organically, simply by allowing consumers to make better choices. Higher education is no different than any other sector in that regard, and institutions large or small, public or private that fail to respond will simply be left by the wayside.

Public education and a free market are fundamental American principles that are too often treated as separate pursuits. We need to do more to merge these principles as powerful forces for the benefit of students and the future of higher education.