Should the federal government be in the business of telling consumers what’s a good or bad college?

Last week the Obama administration announced an update to the U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard, its signature resource for helping consumers shop for a higher education.

Tucked into that announcement was a small, but pretty significant change that’s largely escaped public notice: a move beyond just giving people information about colleges like how much they cost or how much graduates eventually earn. They also want to, as they say, “consider other cautionary indicators that consumers should be aware of before deciding to enroll in an institution.”

In a sector that has an over-zealous fascination with nudges, this is anything but a small shift. To this point the scorecard’s represented yet one more iteration of federally-collected data repackaged in a consumer-friendly manner.

If this all seems eerily familiar, it is. Only two years ago the Department of Education and Obama administration tried rating colleges and got an absolute public shellackingfor it. In fact, after months of sustained grief the Department quietly caved and ended up creating the very scorecard we’re now talking about.

Someone at the Department’s clearly learned that it’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission. The screen grab on the left is from the Scorecard homepage on September 13th, 2016. On the right is the same page on September 14th. Have a look at the wording change.

Not only is the new language horribly judgmental it’s also ridiculously imprecise. What, exactly, an “affordable” school or “good” outcome is means very different things to different people. And what the heck does “advance opportunities” even mean?

The government supposedly created a site like this because it believes consumers need trusted and reliable information amidst a sea of guidebooks, magazine rankings and hundreds of Internet sites. If there was a clear value-add they might be forgiven but dig into the actual links and the results are nothing short of confusing.

How bad is it? Click through to the Four-Year Public Colleges with Low Costs and High Salaries page and the first thing you see is that it’s actually not four-year publics but a mix of public and private non-profits schools with more than 40 percent of enrollments as low-income students. Jump to the text after the school list and you get information about the calculation of repayment rates that aren’t even presented.

It gets worse. The very first institution someone sees is Agnes Scott College, a private college in Georgia, with an $18,517 net price tag (read: after grants and scholarships have been taken out). That’s about a $75,000 bill if a student actually finishes in four years. The typical payoff 10 years after graduating? A little less than $40,000 a year.

The Affordable Schools with Good Outcomes page is only marginally better. The median student only travels about 18 miles from home to attend college yet only 12 states make the list and fully half of the institutions are located in just three states (California, New York and Texas). For almost two-thirds of the college-going population, these institutional choices are effectively meaningless.

It’s easy to chalk things like this up to a new roll-out but the scorecard site isn’t new; it’s been around for an entire year. Changes and inconsistencies like these aren’t coding errors as much as they reflect poor quality control and ambiguous standards. They’ve been publicly live for a full week now.

Suggestions are supposed to help students find great options and opportunities that they otherwise wouldn’t be aware of. Populating this list with flagship institutions in Georgia, Utah, Washington, Florida and California isn’t helping anyone find undiscovered gems and consumers don’t need to be told that Georgia Tech is a great school. We all know that. What several hundred thousand Georgians who can’t or aren’t able to get in to Tech need to know is which of the other roughly 30 public institutions in the state are worthy alternatives.

If this is where my tax dollars are going I think I’d like my money back.

A bold step into the gray over a bridge too far

If we can’t put stock in the Scorecard’s suggestions of good colleges, one can only imagine what’ll happen when it tries to point out what someone at the Department thinks are bad ones. We tolerate magazines picking winners and losers because everyone knows the fraction of students and families who actually use annual rankings to decide on a college is small and select. For everyone else, they’re a curiosity that any publisher will freely admit exists to drive web traffic.

It’s altogether different when we’re talking about the U.S. Department of Education taking a serious stance on the issue in the hopes of potentially shaping millions of students’ decisions. The consequences for getting it wrong are simply much higher for both students and providers. The administration won’t say what “cautionary” measures it may end up using but any indicator will be automatically flawed if for no other reason than it flat-out contradicts the fact that these schools already meet quality standards set by accreditors specifically tasked by the U.S. Department of Education to assess such things.

Implying that consumers should potentially avoid a college that they’ve already indirectly tacked a seal of approval on is the kind of circular logic that we only typically see blowing up an Excel spreadsheet.

Want an even more difficult bind? Any of the schools they’d potentially be flagging also meet the federal requirements that entitle their students to receive federal student loan and grant assistance. How can the Department of Education caution people about a college that it’s comfortable enough to potentially lend students tens of thousands of dollars each to attend?

If the higher education associations don’t pounce first, at some point some college, or group of colleges, is going to raise the legal issue of whether the federal government can simultaneously recognize something like an institution’s federal aid eligibility or accreditation and discourage consumers from attending or utilizing that aid. That’s a hard race to handicap but one that seems rooted in pretty compelling logic.

Higher education is an industry defined by consumer choice. The notion that the government wants its people to make informed decisions is well-intentioned but defining good and bad is a fool’s errand; just present the data, let it speak for itself and trust that consumers will make the choices that best meet their needs and circumstances. Anything else is a colossal waste of government time, dollars and talent.

If the ACICS debacle taught us anything it’s that the problem with quality in higher education isn’t so much an institutional one as it is about oversight. If the federal government really wants to help consumers it can provide more value by raising the standards for what constitutes a quality institution.

All Congress and the Department need to do is pull the levers they already control. Redefine what’s expected of the institutional accreditors they oversee or tighten the eligibility standards around which schools should be eligible for federal student aid.

To keep on the track they’re currently on can’t help but produce more of the confusion they’re trying to end.

@EDAnalyst

Note: This piece was first published in LinkedIn on 90/20/2016