Is It Worth It? A College Report Card for Incoming Students
March 19, 2012


By Carlin Sack for

College students vie for it. Education experts advocate for it. Even President Barack Obama endorsed a college “report card.” The idea of a uniform report card used to assess colleges is supported by many and the hype over it has only increased since Obama’s January speech at University of Michigan regarding the affordability of a college education.

Higher education activists call for a report mandated by the federal government that gives specific items of “consumer information” for every college. Others say that this information already exists elsewhere, so there is no reason for interference by the federal government.

But any current student who is choosing between colleges and is looking for accessible information about actual costs of receiving a degree would vouch that it is not easy to find.

Students just really want to know the answer to one question: “Will this debt be worth it?”

It may already be a given that students will be taking out loans to pay for higher education. But will their incomes later justify these loans? Creating a college comparison sheet for students would make the world of finance a bit clearer for college kids and would help them understand exactly what they are getting themselves into.

The Obama administration has proposed to inform “consumers” with a report that could include employment rates and average salaries of alumni. He also called for a financial aid shopping sheet that would allow students to compare financial aid packages side-by-side during his speech on January 27 in Ann Arbor.

This idea of a college report card or factsheet has been proposed and advocated for by people like education economist Bridget Terry Long and columnist Marty Nemko in the past, although each suggests different facts to be included on the report. Support for the report card has increased along with student debt over the past few years; outstanding student loans balances have surpassed both outstanding credit card balances and outstanding auto balances, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

College students, whose debt will affect the country’s future economy as a whole, would benefit immensely from these published facts during the decision-making process because the importance of economics when choosing a college would be emphasized.

Although economic viability should not be the only factor taken into consideration by families when making the big decision, it is essential that a student finds a school that is both an academic and a financial fit. Without instituting some sort of report card or factsheet, the government would not only be allowing for a financially ignorant population, but for colleges to continue with decreased accountability to the public.

Of course, college websites list tuition and room and board fees, but there are often student activities or athletic fees that are difficult to identify. Are they yearly fees, quarterly fees? It is hard to tell until the first bill shows up. Additionally, it is even harder to locate employment and earning statistics of alumni and compare them accurately across schools. The federal government would not only be doing a favor for the U.S. economy, but for every student struggling to make the right decision.

Admittedly, this sounds a bit too methodical for some. But these sorts of reports are already being done by countless college guides and organizations like U.S. News and World Report and National Center for Education Statistics. These facts are out there and, if compiled, would benefit many college students and parents of students.

Compiling these facts and requiring every degree-granting school to report a few facts to the federal government would be a low-cost way to create awareness about and improve the student debt situation in our country. College students want to be financially informed and want to make the decision that will be best for them even after they earn their degrees.

With an outstanding student loan balance of $870 billion in the U.S. today, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the government cannot afford for this trend to continue in the future; a college report card should be the first small step the government takes in ensuring economic stability for college graduates.

Carlin Sack writes for and attends Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism

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