The big idea
A federal effort to identify less affordable colleges makes little difference in students’ decisions of which college to attend, according to my new study.
The Education Department has maintained four lists of what it deems to be the nation’s priciest colleges in its online College Affordability and Transparency Center since 2011, as required by Congress. Lawmakers created this requirement intending to help students and families make “better” decisions on where to enroll.
In addition, I found no evidence that colleges on these lists cut tuition or boost their financial aid. Instead, I found that the tuition and financial aid provided at these colleges the year after being included on one of the lists were strikingly similar to colleges that were not included on the lists because they were slightly less expensive.
Why it matters
These findings call into question how useful these lists are.
Students and their families want to know the affordability of colleges they may want to attend. However, their interests can be driven by where students live, what they wish to study and other factors. For those reasons, lists of colleges that are the least affordable across the United States are likely not as helpful as information about the affordability of a personalized list of schools that the student is interested in attending. The Education Department’s College Scorecard provides that kind of information, which makes it even more difficult for the affordability lists to be useful.
What still isn’t known
To be sure, it’s not clear how reliable the information in the college affordability lists is or if American families are even aware they exist. For example, the federal government reports that some institutions are only on the list due to data errors that were submitted to the federal government.
Other issues are likely to play a major role in the ability of the lists to influence the behavior of students and colleges. The health of the economy may influence what it costs to go to college, the amount of financial aid available, who gets a college education and where students enroll. Students are less likely to enroll in colleges that are far from home. Also, decreases in state funding for higher education will drive future changes in price of college and availability of financial aid.
At present, Congress requires both college administrators and Education Department staffers to gather the information for the affordability lists. If the lists do continue, they should become easier to access so that people can be more aware of them. Currently, anyone seeking this information must visit the website or read about a college’s inclusion through the media. If the lists cannot be made more useful, I believe it might make more sense to stop requiring their creation all together.
Author Bio: Dominique Baker is an Associate Professor of Education Policy at Southern Methodist University