The Future of Business Depends on Real Higher Education Data

Feb 3, 2012

In my former life as an admission counselor at my alma mater, I dreaded the release day for college rankings. I was not supposed to care—like many other institutions of higher learning, my college expressed its commitment to not use the rankings as a form of publicity, but continued to supply the requested data. But I did care. I cared not only because of pride for my school but I also knew that prospective students strongly consider rankings in their decision. I once asked a student why he decided on another college over ours, and his response was simply, “They were ranked higher.” The difference in the institutions’ ranking was just two places. Even if they are not the deciding factor for a student’s choice, rankings can play a significant role in decision-making, and what matters to the consumer has a bearing on the provider.

Recently, a scandal broke at Claremont McKenna College—a highly reputable and respected institution—in which a senior administrator reported false data for the institution’s incoming class SAT scores for each of the last six years. These numbers were reported to numerous ranking systems, as well as the U.S. Department of Education. SAT scores have a weight of 7.5% on the U.S. News & World Report’s standings, arguably the best known ranking system.

This is not the first instance of false reporting to improve rankings, and surely it will not be the last. Whether or not Claremont McKenna moves down a slot or two as a result of the scandal is not really the point. While I do not condone the inflated numbers I have to admit the first thing that came to mind was, “Really—SAT scores?” Most colleges will tell you ten points on a standardized test are unlikely to be the “make or break” factor for admission or rejection—is that really something worth going out on a ledge over?

What this scandal clearly illustrates is the need for higher education consumers to have access to outcome-based data on relevant issues like graduation rates, how long it takes to graduate, and what happens after a student leaves the institution—these are the kinds of statistics we want driving prospective students’ decisions. While some ranking systems do use outcome-based data like graduation rates, it is a problem when we can’t provide consumers additional student outcomes such as job placement rates, licensure passage rates, or graduate school acceptance rates. Prospective students would not be the only beneficiaries of this information. Imagine how institutions could use the data to recognize programmatic shortcomings and virtues; the business community could use the data as a tool to recruit students from particular programs that have proven results with their graduates.

In the summer of 2012, the U.S. Chamber’s Institute for a Competitive Workforce, in collaboration with American Enterprise Institute and the Brookings Institution, will release the latest report in the Leaders & Laggards series focusing on public postsecondary education in the United States. Given the incredible amount of attention higher education has experienced in recent months, it is our hope that even more prominence will be placed on output measures versus input measures. The report will include such metrics as outcome information, transparency, and cost effectiveness. Let’s refocus our attention to what really should matter to our students—to walk across the stage, diploma-in-hand, prepared to meet the needs of today’s workforce.

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