Colleges must prepare for a buyer\’s market



College professors increasingly complain about the consumer mentality of their students: In exchange for shelling out ever greater amounts of tuition dollars, students expect to be treated to easy A\’s and maximum flexibility in assignments and class attendance.

Students should be savvy consumers of higher education—but not in the classroom. Instead, they, and their parents, should adopt the consumer mind-set earlier, during their initial search for a college. Too many prospective families are captivated by the bells and whistles that institutions play during the admissions process, designed to hook students well before they fully understand the financial realities of going to their first-choice college.

While doing research for my forthcoming book on the future of higher education, I visited nearly two dozen campuses and tagged along on as many prospective-student tours as I could inconspicuously join. For the most part, I found students and parents asking all the wrong questions. Colleges have long benefited from the fact that they know more about prospective students than prospective students know about them.

But that balance of power is slowly shifting, as consumer information about higher education improves, thanks largely to such long-overdue tools as the U.S. Education Department\’s College Scorecard and financial-aid \”shopping sheet.\” Armed with these data, prospective students and parents become savvier consumers and begin asking better questions of the colleges they are considering.

In order to continue attracting paying students, colleges must be prepared to answer questions far more difficult than those about food service, new majors, or social life. Here\’s a sampling of what to expect:

What is the return on a student\’s investment?

While there is no single way to determine if a particular college is worth the price tag, students and parents can weigh various measures to better assess if it is worth the debt they might take on to go there. Much of the focus now is on the salaries of graduates, but colleges should provide noneconomic measures as well, including graduation rates and more details on job and graduate-school placements. Because graduation rates often vary within an institution, colleges should tell prospective students their chances for graduating on time, on the basis of the performance of previous students like them in terms of gender, ethnicity, and background. Don\’t just tout your famous alumni. Give a picture of what all of your recent graduates are doing—the companies they work for and their job titles, or the graduate schools they\’re attending.

How mobile are the academic credits earned on your campus and elsewhere?

Students in the future will move among colleges, nontraditional education providers, and foreign countries as they cobble together their degrees. They will gravitate toward institutions that offer maximum flexibility. Would-be students should know the percentage of transfer credits your institution accepts each year, and why it denies credit for those it doesn\’t accept. Now that the American Council on Education has endorsed five massive open online courses for credit, expect students to ask what happens if they come to your registrar seeking credit with a certificate of completion from a MOOC in hand.

How tech-savvy is your institution?

Forget about whether your college gives out iPads to all incoming students or whether the wireless network covers every square inch of the campus. Students will want to know how you\’re using technology to change the way courses are delivered. Be prepared to say how many professors mix technology with their lectures so they can be viewed outside of class, or whether students have an option to choose from a variety of course formats: face-to-face, hybrid, and online. A few potential applicants might even ask about \”adaptive learning\” software, which personalizes the learning experience so that students focus valuable class time on what they don\’t know and breeze through what they have already mastered.

What are your college\’s priorities, and does academic rigor rank at the top?

If your institution\’s priorities are more about gaining prestige than educating students, prospective students will be able to recognize that. Encourage them to sit in on classes, and give them sample course evaluations so they can see how current students judge their professors. Be open about the percentage of your students who get A\’s and B\’s, and share the percentage of courses that assign more than 40 pages of reading a week or more than 20 pages of writing over the course of a semester. Say who will be teaching them—your percentage of full-time faculty and how many of them teach first-year classes. And share your institution\’s scores on the Collegiate Learning Assessment.

Does your college prepare students for their fifth job, not just their first?

Employers want workers who have the ability to learn how to learn—in other words, the ability to find the answers to questions that we cannot yet envision. The hot jobs of today might be nonexistent in 20 years, so students and parents want to understand how a college develops the skills necessary to succeed in the work force of tomorrow. Prospective students should know if they will get to participate in research projects alongside faculty members, and get real-life work experience off campus. With more students looking to hedge their bets and double-major, how easy is it to do so on your campus, and what are the most popular combination of majors?

How easily does your institution allow admitted students to compare financial-aid offers?

Families know little about what college will actually cost them—and, for many, exactly how they will pay for it—until a few weeks before they must make a final decision. Financial-aid offers from colleges do not follow a common template, making it difficult for families to compare them. So go beyond the numbers you report to the government about how your students finance their education: What percentage of your students graduate with debt? What is the average debt of students at graduation? What percentage of last year\’s graduates owe more than $25,000 in student-loan debt? More than $50,000? What is the average amount of parent loans? And how does your institution evaluate the \”financial fit\” of a student?

Is your college transparent about its own financial health?

One-third of all colleges in the country are significantly weaker financially than before the recession and are on an unsustainable fiscal path. An additional quarter find themselves at serious risk of joining that group. Applicants should know the financial strength of the institutions they are considering. Be transparent about your tuition-discount rate and how much money you\’re actually getting from tuition after your financial-aid budget is exhausted. If you\’re rated by one of the bond-rating agencies, make the reports available during tours.

My guess is that these are not the questions most college officials want to be asked. But if colleges want to prove their value to consumers who, increasingly, will vote with their feet, they must be prepared to provide the answers.

Author Bio: Jeffrey Selingo is editor at large at The Chronicle. This essay is adapted from College (Un)Bound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means for Students, to be published in May by New Harvest/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.