Let’s mea­sure col­lege sat­is­fac­tion

Los Angeles Times - - OPINION - Karin Klein writes about ed­u­ca­tion for The Times ed­i­to­rial board. By Karin Klein

When it comes to pick­ing col­leges, Amer­i­cans are ter­ri­ble con­sumers. Stu­dents hear ru­mors from friends about which of the na­tion’s 4,000-plus col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties are the “best.” Worse, they de­pend on U.S. News and World Re­port-type rank­ings that uni­ver­si­ties can ma­nip­u­late with­out im­prov­ing the qual­ity of the ed­u­ca­tion pro­vided. The av­er­age Amer­i­can has bet­ter ac­cess to in­for­ma­tion about $60 cof­fee mak­ers than $60,000-a-year uni­ver­si­ties.

A new Gallup poll, though it doesn’t specif­i­cally ad­dress col­lege choice, high­lights that stu­dents ap­ply­ing to col­lege don’t seem to know what kind of higher ed­u­ca­tion will bring them the most sat­is­fac­tion. They pay for their ig­no­rance not only in debt, but in long-stand­ing re­grets.

The poll, un­veiled ear­lier in June, asked 95,000 ran­domly se­lected peo­ple with var­i­ous lev­els of ed­u­ca­tion — from col­lege dropouts to PhDs — to re­flect on their col­lege ex­pe­ri­ence, in­clud­ing whether they wished they’d at­tended a dif­fer­ent in­sti­tu­tion.

The re­sults were some­times sur­pris­ing. Twenty-three per­cent of peo­ple who make $250,000 or more said they would choose a dif­fer­ent col­lege if they had it to do all over again. That was less than the 31% at the ex­treme edge of poverty — but not all that much less.

Peo­ple who had at­tended pricey pri­vate col­leges were barely more sat­is­fied with their choices than those at pub­lic schools, even though pub­lic uni­ver­si­ties gen­er­ally have big­ger class sizes and fewer ameni­ties. And those who at­tended se­lec­tive col­leges were only some­what less likely to have re­grets than those who went to schools where the bar for en­try is far lower. Large amounts of stu­dent debt, pre­dictably, made peo­ple much less sat­is­fied with their choice of a col­lege.

Per­haps out­comes are so bad be­cause col­lege rat­ing sys­tems, which have pro­lif­er­ated in re­cent years, never ad­dress this most ba­sic of con­sumer ques­tions: Are the buy­ers — the stu­dents — happy with their choices down the line?

Rank­ing sys­tems tend to value pres­tige even though the Gallup poll in­di­cates that might not bring stu­dents sat­is­fac­tion down the road. The for­mula used by U.S. News, for ex­am­ple, de­pends heav­ily on sur­veys of aca­demics; in other words, pro­fes­sors and ad­min­is­tra­tors rat­ing each other’s col­leges, a fairly mean­ing­less pop­u­lar­ity con­test among a rar­efied group who might have very dif­fer­ent pri­or­i­ties than stu­dents.

Pro­fes­sors’ salaries are used as a proxy for in­struc­tional ex­cel­lence. And U.S. News and other rank­ings con­tinue to rely too much on se­lec­tiv­ity as a mea­sure of ex­cel­lence: stu­dent SAT scores, ac­cep­tance rates and the like.

Forbes, which prides it­self on mea­sur­ing out­comes, uses salaries af­ter grad­u­a­tion as the big­gest in­di­ca­tor of qual­ity. But as the Gallup poll shows, a hefty por­tion of even the high­est-paid Amer­i­cans ex­press dis­sat­is­fac­tion with their col­lege ex­pe­ri­ences. And what about the peo­ple who en­ter so­cial work, teach­ing, ad­vo­cacy, non­profit work, the arts — ca­reers that don’t pay no­tably well? Their pay­checks don’t make them any less suc­cess­ful.

Bash­ing col­lege-rank­ings sys­tems has long been pop­u­lar — and jus­ti­fied — be­cause they tend to tell you more about what sorts of high school stu­dents gain ad­mis­sion and how much money the in­sti­tu­tion has in the bank than whether stu­dents have a worth­while ex­pe­ri­ence. In the rank­ings’ de­fense, though, in­for­ma­tion about the most mean­ing­ful fac­tor — stu­dent sat­is­fac­tion over the long haul, as mea­sured by ran­dom­ized polling — isn’t avail­able.

It should be. Col­leges should poll their own stu­dents and alumni about their ed­u­ca­tional ex­pe­ri­ences on a reg­u­lar ba­sis. And so that the re­sults can be com­pared from one school to an­other, the ques­tions and method­olo­gies should be stan­dard­ized across schools. Fewer cash-strapped stu­dents would at­tend pri­vate schools if they knew they were about as likely to be sat­is­fied with a pub­lic univer­sity at less than half the price.

Bran­don Bus­teed at Gallup sug­gested that the na­tion’s ac­cred­it­ing agen­cies could re­quire such polling each time that reac­cred­i­ta­tion time rolls around, ev­ery sev­eral years. That’s enough; de­spite what U.S. News would have you be­lieve, col­leges don’t change much from one year to the next.

Of course, it takes more than just a con­sumer poll to cre­ate a use­ful rank­ing; other­wise ev­ery stu­dent who wanted to whine about a bad grade could hold col­leges hostage. But in­stead of us­ing prox­ies for stu­dents’ ed­u­ca­tional ex­pe­ri­ence — pro­fes­sors’ salaries, class sizes and the like — col­leges should go straight to the source.

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