May 5, 2013 Back to All Blogs

Information, Information Everywhere, But is College Affordability and Planning Improved?

*Fairfield Community School District (www.fairfieldsfuture.org)

*Fairfield Community School District (www.fairfieldsfuture.org)

Public information on college costs, graduation rates, and other data has increased, but has the improved access to information helped students and families make cost effective decisions? The House Education and Workforce Committee discussed this question in a panel last week.

Don Heller, Dean of Michigan State University’s College of Education, made a great point in his testimony:

“The Internet has greatly helped to democratize access to information. What it has not done as well is to help people access the right information at the right time to meet their needs. There’s no substitute for access to knowledgeable information that can be tailored to the needs of individual students.”

Why aren’t we delivering “the right information at the right time” to help students get the degrees and accreditation they need to get ahead?

The College Scorecard website announced in President Obama’s State of the Union address certainly fills a need. Families struggle to afford college and want to invest in a degree that will help students get ahead in a challenging economy. Unfortunately, visitors to the government website may expect the same instant gratification and access to everything-under-the-sun they get in online dating or Yelp.

Currently, College Scorecard visitors can learn the net cost of attending a particular college and see data on loan defaults and graduation rates. What they won’t be able to do are side-by-side comparisons, find information about graduates’ success in getting a job, or their long-term earnings. A review by the New America Foundation called the interface cluttered and the search function sticky.

It’s all about users
Imagine giving students the ability to find their “match” based on factors they choose, like career track, price and long-term earnings for graduates. Just as online dating success relies on users being specific about what they want, college information becomes exponentially more useful when it is highly personalized and relevant.

Understandably, the stakes are high for getting it right. The number of jobs requiring at least a two-year associate’s degree will outpace the number of people qualified to fill those positions by at least three million by 2018, according to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

Students as center of information gravity
Federal and state directives to publicize price and performance information are based on the premise that greater transparency and shopping power will exert market forces that bring down costs. Kentucky, Washington and Arizona have interactive websites on college performance measures that include degrees awarded, retention rates and student success. More states should join them. But college applicants shouldn’t have to forage multiple websites. Like Amazon and Netflix, the user should be the center of information gravity with tailored suggestions and new information coming to them.

All schools participating in federal student aid programs are required by law to post online calculators so students can see the net price of attending, but the calculators are hard to find on many college’s websites.

Define, explain, assist
The same design and features found under the new “Health Information Exchange” would serve users of the College Scorecard well. When the Exchange was created, insurers and government leaders assumed consumers would choose a Travelocity-esque platform with lots of options and price comparisons. Instead people chose TurboTax.

Users wanted to be able to hover their mouse over confusing terms to get a quick explanation in a popup window – a popular feature of the tax software. “At-your-service” navigation tools that sweep in with suggestions and definitions empower users with answers that lead them to make the right decisions for themselves and their families. This would be particularly powerful in navigating the confusing, unpredictable world of financial aid and student loans.

The House Education and Workforce Committee testimony also touched on under-resourced high school guidance counselors: serving too many students’ needs causes an inadequate focus on college-readiness.

The American School Counselor’s Association recommends a ratio of one counselor for every 250 students. But the national average is one counselor for every 459 students.

Imagine a database that keeps track of students’ interests, grades and money saved for college. The database could match college, financial planning and career news with students’ unique needs and plans throughout their K-12 education, using the “big data” now available in K-12. The guidance counselor/student ratio could become one-on-one, personalized attention.

Delivering the right higher education information to the right person at the right time is a wholly different way of thinking about and designing college performance ratings and navigation tools. Report cards are no longer landing pages that require entering new information with every use, but personalized guidance tailored to students’ need. This is the future of informed, affordable choices that lead to more degrees and the economic and civic success that go with them.

Mark Tobias (@PanthTech) is president of Pantheon, which combines technology expertise and a deep knowledge of health care, education, and social impact markets to provide online technology solutions for nonprofits, associations, and government.