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A Proposal: Mandating that All Colleges Post a College Report Card on Itself

By Marty Nemko

Executive Summary

Higher education is among the few important purchases that essentially is unregulated, unaccountable, and opaque. That causes great harm to students and society. The research has become unambiguous that American higher education does a far worse job of education than what the higher education marketing and lobbying machines would have us believe.

This proposal recommends that all colleges be required to prominently post on its website a substantive College Report Card. That would enable students to make a more informed choices of college. Perhaps even more important, it would encourage colleges to reallocate resources from ego-driven new buildings, bloated administrations, lush landscaping, and low-impact research to efforts to improve student growth and in turn the quality of the American workforce, citizenry, and our nation as we attempt to continue to thrive in our ever more global economy.

* * * *

America's Most Overrated Product: Higher Education

I'm so saddened when I hear stories like this: "I wasn't a good student in high school but I wanted to prove that I can get a college diploma--I'd be the first one in my family to do it. But it's been five years and $80,000 and I still have 45 units to go."

I have a hard time telling such people the killer statistic: According to the U.S. Department of Education, despite colleges having dumbed-down classes to accommodate the weak students,among college freshmen at so-called four-year colleges who graduated in the bottom 40 percent of their high school class, 76 of 100 won't earn a diploma, even if given 8 ½ years. Yet colleges admit and take the money from hundreds of thousands of such students each year!

Perhaps even more surprising, even high school students who are fully qualified to attend college are increasingly unlikely to derive sufficient benefit (see below) to justify the often six-figure cost and four to eight years it takes to graduate --and only 40 percent of each year's two million freshmen graduate in four years; 45 percent never graduate at all!

Even worse, most of those college dropouts leave college having learned little of value (see below) a mountain of debt, and devastated self-esteem from all their unsuccessful struggles at college.

Perhaps worst of all, those people too rarely end up with a college-requiring career. So it's not surprising that when you hop into a cab or walk into a restaurant, you're likely to meet workers who spent years and their family's savings on college only to end up with a job they could have done as a high school dropout. According to a just-released study of U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data by the Chronicle of Higher Education in an article calledThe Great College Scam, 60 percent of the increased number of college graduates from 1992 to 2008 work on jobs requiring just high school!

How much do college students actually learn?

Colleges are quick to argue that a college education is more about enlightenment than employment. That may be the biggest deception of all. Often, there is a Grand Canyon of difference between the reality and what institutions of higher education, especially research-centric ones, tout in their brochures and websites. Colleges and universities are businesses, and students are a cost item while research is a profit center. So, many institutions tend to educate students in the cheapest way possible: large lecture classes, with small classes staffed by rock-bottom-cost graduate students and even by undergraduate students.

At a typical university, only 30% of the typical student's class hours will have been in a class with fewer than 30 students taught by a professor. That's not to say that professor-taught classes are so worthwhile. The more prestigious the institution, the more likely that faculty is hired and promoted much more on how much research they do than how well they teach. And indeed, contrary to colleges' self-serving claims, researchers are not the best qualified or motivated to teach the basics to undergraduates. Faculty that bring in big research dollars are almost always rewarded while even a fine teacher who doesn't bring in the research bucks is often fired or relegated to the lowest rung: lecturer. The late Ernest Boyer, vice-president for the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching said, only half-joking, "Winning the campus teaching award is the kiss of death when it comes to tenure."

So, no surprise, in the definitive Your First College Year nationwide survey conducted by UCLA researchers (data collected in 2005, reported in 2007)only 16.4 percent of students were very satisfied with the overall quality of instruction they received and 28.2 percent were neutral, dissatisfied, or very dissatisfied. A follow-up survey of seniors found that 37% percent reported being "frequently bored in class" up from 27.5 percent as freshmen.

College students may be dissatisfied with instruction but despite that, do they learn? A 2006 study funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that50 percent of college seniors failed a test that required them to do such basic tasks as interpret a table about exercise and blood pressure, understand the arguments of newspaper editorials, or compare credit card offers. Almost 20 percent of seniors had only basic quantitative skills. For example, the students could not estimate if their car had enough gas to get to the gas station.

Unbelievably, according to the U.S. Department of Education's most recent Higher Education Commission Report (the Spellings Report,) things are getting even worse:

"Over the past decade, literacy among college graduates has actually declined! According to the most recent National Assessment of Adult Literacy, for instance, the percentage of college graduates deemed proficient in prose literacy has actually declined from 40 to 31 percent in the past decade. Employers report repeatedly that many new graduates they hire are not prepared to work, lacking the critical thinking, writing and problem-solving skills needed in today's workplaces."

And while even worse findings are almost inconceivable, in 2011, the book Academically Adrift, published by the University of Chicago Press reports the results of an extensive nationwide study:

  • large numbers of students report that they have limited academic demands and invest limited effort in their courses
  • 36% of students did not demonstrate significant improvement in learning in all four years of college
  • Students who show gains had relatively small improvements.

A College Education: America's Most Unaccountable Product

The government requires that important products contain consumer information, for example,

  • Most packaged food must contain a label of its nutritional value, from vitamin A to zinc.
  • A tire's treadlife, traction, and temperature rating must be molded into each tire's sidewall.
  • Drug manufacturers must submit literally truckloads of data before a drug may be sold, and each bottle of or advertisement for a prescription drug must include a detailed insert summarizing that information.
  • A home seller must disclose pages of information about the home to all prospective buyers.

Yet the government requires virtually no accountability or transparency from colleges. That, despite a college education, next to a home, being the largest purchase most people ever make and one that may have even greater impact than a home on the person's life.

In the absence of government requiring a measure of accountability and transparency, colleges' prodigious marketing machines, even at well-reputed institutions, are too often deceptive.

Colleges websites often bury or even don't report at all their four-year graduation rates, let alone disaggregated by students' high school record. They bury or don't report the full cost of obtaining a degree, let alone disaggregated by family income and assets. I encourage you to visit your alma mater's website to see whether you can find even that basic information.

What colleges often do report are misleading statements that even most corporations would be reluctant to make:

"College graduates earn $1 million more over their lifetime." Forgetting for the moment that nearly half of students never graduate even if they spend six years of their life trying, the $1 million statistic is terribly misleading because you could lock the college-bound in a closet for four years and they'd earn more than the pool of non-college-bound: They're brighter, more motivated, and have better family connections. And those students wouldn't be locked in a closet. If they invested all that time and money in real-world experiences, mightn't they benefit more than from four to eight years of the doppelganger, hermeneutics, and the vagaries of the Peloponnesian Wars?

"Our faculty-student ratio is 20:1," with, in the college's brochure and website, an accompanying photo of a small class. The dirty little secret is that the faculty-student ratio may well include professors who are researchers and never see a student. In fact, at most universities, a significant percentage of undergraduates' class time is spent in an auditorium or watching a video screen.

Perhaps most impressive to the unsuspecting prospective student and family, the colleges' brochures and websites trumpet prestigious jobs that its graduates have obtained. Of course, those are cherry-picked. Very rarely do colleges report what would truly be useful information, for example, a chart, by major, showing the percentage of students, with different levels of high school grades and SAT scores, who, within a year of graduation, are professionally employed.

And the government's not mandating transparency and accountability has allowed colleges to hide the aforementioned terrible freshman-to-senior growth in key skills, the atrocious graduation rates and employment records. That lack of transparency particularly affects students from low socioeconomic backgrounds and students of color. For example, the 20-campus California State University system doesn't inform African-American students that the four-year graduation rate for its Black students is a shocking 6%(!) That's reminiscent of the Tuskegee Experiment, in which African-Americans were subjected to an experimental treatment without disclosure of its risks and that a proven successful treatment was available.

A Solution: The College Report Card

Imagine you were a college president. What would you do if, one day, you are told that all colleges must prominently post an independently audited College Report Card that includes these items:

  • Freshman-to-senior average growth in critical thinking, writing, quantitative reasoning, etc. (disaggregated by high school record)

(For you statisticians out there, a variable consisting of pre-post growth embeds significant error variance, but with the large N and that variable being only one of a number of indices of college quality, the wisdom of including a measure of growth outweighs the disadvantage of a large confidence interval. And if that argument is deemed inadequate, a reasonable proxy would be to use senior scores adjusted for high school weighted GPA and SAT score.)

  • The results of a recent student satisfaction survey
  • Four-, five-, and six-year graduation rates (disaggregated by high school record)
  • The percentage of graduates professionally employed, including average salary. (disaggregated by high school record and by major)
  • The accreditation team's most recent report on the college.

Most college presidents, knowing that that information on their college and on its competitors will be made prominently public, would reevaluate how faculty was hired and evaluated for promotion, require faculty to complete a teaching boot camp, reallocate money from the budget for administrators, fancy buildings, low-impact research, and landscaping to more student-beneficial expenditures: mentoring and tutoring programs, an outstanding career center, etc.

Potential Objections

No doubt, as with all proposed regulation, many colleges will object to being held accountable. Here are possible objections:

"It would take too much time and money." Most institutions already collect most or all of the data. The incremental cost, including for the independent audit, should be trivial. And institutions whose report cards are above average will likely enable them to recruit more and better students without incurring marketing costs, thereby deriving net savings.

Shouldn't accreditation rather than government require the College Report Card? Accrediting agencies have long been urged to adopt a College Report Card or something similar but hasn't. Remember that each college pays the accrediting agency so they can be evaluated for accreditation. So it's not surprising that the leaders of accrediting agencies have been unable to get their member institutions to voluntarily agree to be as transparent as would be required in a substantive College Report Card.

"No measure of student growth is applicable to all colleges." Well-standardized instruments exist that measure such unarguable components of an undergraduate education as writing, reading, critical thinking, and quantitative reasoning. Indeed, the vast majority of colleges have long agreed to use the SAT or ACT as an admission test. Colleges cannot legitimately object to the use of, for example, The College Learning Assessment Test. Any instrument can be quibbled about, but the advantages of using it clearly outweigh the disadvantages.


I look forward to meeting with you to discuss how a College Report Card might become a reality, thereby providing great benefit to students, society, and ultimately, to American higher education itself so it can become the national treasure it claims itself to be and so America can continue to thrive in our ever more global economy.

Feel free to contact me with questions or comments: 510-655-2777 or

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