Two trends college seekers should understand

This report (PDF) from the Boston Consulting Group outlines five trends to watch in higher education.

Two of these are especially important for students searching for a high-quality education: declining revenue and calls for transparency.

BCG reports that declining revenues may lead to “one-third to one-half of all U.S. universities going bankrupt over the coming decades.”

Some details on colleges’ failing finances:
– The percentage of top public universities’ revenue that comes from state appropriations now ranges from 1 to 36 percent. (One percent! How does that institution still qualify as a public university?)
– Enrollment has slowed, and is expected to decline, so colleges and universities can no longer depend on tuition as an ever-increasing source of revenue.
– Endowment portfolios have been underperforming.
– Federal agencies also have less money to give, including the NSF and NIH.

So, how are colleges compensating for these losses? Some tactics:

  • steep increases in tuition and fees
  • cutting tenured faculty in favor of adjuncts
  • cutting entire programs (including some that might surprise or disappoint you)
  • deferring billions of dollars in maintenance
  • less expensive alternative certificate and degree programs (online, hybrid, shorter in duration, sand/or vocationally focused)*
  • recruitment of more out-of-state and international students, who, at least at public universities, pay higher tuition than do in-state students

Note that we’re not seeing a disinvestment in college athletics.  You can see how much your favorite university spends on college sports in this spreadsheet; check out by how many millions of dollars each athletic department is subsidized, despite the popular belief that major football teams make money for their schools.

Another place where spending is increasing is university administration. Beware the college that has an ever-growing list of vice presidents, vice provosts, deanlings, or bizarrely named administrators in a Byzantine org chart.  (I once met an “executive associate vice chancellor.” Note the three adjectives, none of them explanatory or illustrative of the job duties.)

Here, instead of just being a Negative Nellie, I’ll highlight a college that seems to be doing it right: Claremont McKenna College, whose Student Affairs website explains “The Office of the Vice President for Student Affairs, Admission, and Financial Aid is really just two people, Jeff and Julia, who oversee a wide spectrum of programs at CMC to ensure that the College is running smoothly for students.” I admire that lack of administrative bloat.

Not surprisingly, stakeholders are asking for a greater return on investment in higher ed, especially since the rapid increase in the cost of a college education comes at a time when median family incomes are stagnating. Furthermore, recent college graduates are experiencing a soft job market and high debt loads.

The good news: stakeholders expect greater transparency, and colleges, universities, and higher ed consortia are starting to deliver. We can now discover, for example, exactly how much a college or university spends on average educating each student. During the college advising process, I find this data for my clients and use it to help them make especially informed college choices.

If you’re going the DIY route, Michelle Kretzschmar compares the data available in various college search websites and these databases’ ease of use.


*From what I’ve seen so far, I’m not a fan of these plans, as you really do get what you pay for; if you know of one that looks especially promising for first-year, first-time college students, I’d love to hear about it.

Data-driven college searches

When I applied to college twenty years ago, information for prospective students came in primarily five forms:

  • brochures from colleges and universities;
  • thick books aggregating information about colleges and universities, with one or two pages dedicated to each institution;
  • primitive, searchable databases, available on CD-ROM;
  • admissions officers visiting high schools or college fairs;
  • campus visits.

And hoo boy, was I poorly informed.  I made decisions based on the aesthetics of college campuses—as shown in brochure photos, but also on my limited visits—and on my belief that I needed to be in an environment significantly different from my very large Southern California high school.

I ended up on the opposite coast, and I fit the public liberal arts college’s student profile just about perfectly. It was a beautiful campus, but only after landing at a college that was 95 percent white did I realize I thrived in diverse environments. Only after I walked into the meaty, greasy, carb-heavy dining hall did I understand I really did need lots and lots of fresh vegetables and vegetarian sources of protein to remain happy and health. Only after being shoved into a dilapidated dorm room far too small for three people did I realize I needed some basic creature comforts that the dorm just didn’t provide.

I lasted only one semester.  A couple years later, while an admissions tour guide at my third college, I advised all prospective students to “Stay overnight in the dorms; eat the food; meet the people.”  (That advice still applies, by the way.)

Today, however, we have the opposite situation from what 17-year-old me faced; we have a glut of college information available to us online. Strangely, however, most college rankings lists include the same kind of information I encountered as a college junior and senior in those thick books in the early 1990s: number of students, number of majors, SAT and ACT scores, class rankings and GPAs of incoming students, tuition and fees.

While this is all useful information for applicants, it doesn’t allow us to understand what’s really going on at a college or university. Questions we ought to be asking include these:

  • Is the institution fiscally sound? Where does its funding come from?
  • How much of its funding goes to undergraduate education?
  • How many students graduate in 4 years or 6 years?
  • What is the real net price a student’s family is likely to pay?  (This is why I like the Washington Monthly rankings so much.)
  • What percentage of the faculty are tenure-line professors invested in the future of the university, and what portion is contingent labor?
  • How much more does the football coach make than a professor?  (For example, at my institution, last I checked, the coach made 45 times what a new prof earned in a year.)
  • What’s the average age of an undergraduate?
  • What’s the difference between what the college spends on each undergraduate each year, and what the undergraduate pays?
  • If it’s a residential college, how many students leave campus each weekend to go home?
  • In what kind of classrooms do students learn?
  • What technologies are used as part of the average course?
  • Are online courses available, and if so, what’s the completion rate?
  • How many students undertake internships, and where?
  • Does the college act in loco parentis, or does it give students greater independence?
  • What percent of its students go on to public service careers, such as the Peace Corps?
  • Is this a campus where professors (from that college or elsewhere) tend to send their own kids?
  • Do all the students look like me (or my high school student), and is that a good thing?


The questions that matter vary by student and family.  Learning to ask the right questions for your family is not easy, as the most important questions (aside from financial aid availability) are rarely obvious.  And sometimes the answers, even though they are on the Internet or a phone call away, can be difficult to find.  Once you’re looking at numbers and options, crunching and comparing data is not usually as fun as daydreaming about the perfect fall day at your ideal college campus.

In the end, yes, your gut is going to play a big part in your college enrollment decision.  But your search for your right school need not be driven by popular misconceptions, whim, or emotion.  Ask the right questions, find the right data, and interpret that data thoughtfully.

If you need help figuring out what questions you should be asking, how to find the answers to those questions, or how to make sense of data, you can get in touch with me for help.

College rankings are next to useless–find your own data instead


There are countless lists ranking colleges based on all kinds of criteria, but the two most-talked about lists in recent years are the long-standing U.S. News & World Report rankings (first published in 1983), the Forbes rankings (begun in 2008), and the Washington Monthly rankings (which appeared for the first time in 2006).

Problems with the rankings

While I’ve noted many parents of college-bound juniors and seniors (as well as parents of current college students looking to validate their tuition expenses) pay a good deal of attention to the U.S. News rankings, few faculty within higher ed take the rankings seriously as a way of evaluating the quality of an education. (Yes, universities still like to rank high on the list, as it’s a great marketing tool, albeit a deceptive one.)

For example, in 1996, the president of highly-ranked Stanford University wrote to the editor of U.S. News that he found the rankings a fairly useless exercise. “As the president of a university that is among the top-ranked universities,” he wrote, “I hope I have the standing to persuade you that much about these rankings—particularly their specious formulas and spurious precision—is utterly misleading.”  Ten years later, a group of liberal arts college presidents offered a similar critique.

It’s not just college presidents who disparage the rankings; each publication has a stake in downplaying the usefulness of the others’ lists. A couple years ago, James Marshall Crotty wrote at Forbes that the Washington Monthly rankings were insufficiently focused on conservative ideals; that list prioritizes instead the public service records of colleges’ alumni as well as colleges’ affordability.  And Forbes contributor George Leef discounts college rankings altogether, admitting that “students who attend a prestigious college do not necessarily get a better education than students who attend one that is far down in the rankings.” Forbes’s rankings, of course, embody the attitude that pricier is better; the average tuition of its top 50 colleges (excluding the military academies, which don’t charge tuition) is $57,571 per year.

Meanwhile, Washington Monthly claims its criteria—social mobility, research, and service—are the metrics to watch. I agree they’re important, especially when looked at alongside more “traditional” ranking factors.

So. . . What college information should you use?

I admit that I find the Washington Monthly rankings a useful starting point for most parents and students, particularly its “Best Bang for the Buck” list.  The list includes not only the net price of 350 colleges, but also each college’s graduation rate, percent of students receiving Pell grants, and alumni student loan default rates. (Those last are really important–it’s an indicator of alumni success, as monthly student loan repayments can be steep.)  The list is eclectic, but skewed toward coastal universities in its top 20.  Note that despite all the talk about higher ed being unaffordable to California residents, two of the top 10 schools are California State universites, Fullerton (at $3,489 per year) and Long Beach (at $5,699 per year).  Even liberal arts colleges make the list, with Amherst College at the very top, and well-regarded colleges like Williams, Grinnell, Barnard, Occidental, Gustavus Adolphus, College of the Atlantic, and Wheaton (IL) making the top 150.

I urge parents and students to look instead at the information colleges provide under the Common Data Set Initiative, a collaboration among U.S. News & World Report, Peterson’s, and the College Board. Instead of relying on rankings determined by someone else’s formulas, parents and students should decide what’s important to them and look directly at the data.  (Of course, I can help with this process, and it’s included in my college admissions consulting package.)  Some thoughtful participants in the College Confidential forums assembled a list of links to individual colleges’ Common Data Sets.

Further resources

Wikipedia has an overview of various organizations’ college rankings, as well as an article summarizing criticism of college rankings.

IPEDS offers a treasure trove of data, accessed either through its College Navigator or its primary portal, which offers access to all kinds of data analysis.

The American Federation of Teachers’ Higher Education Data Center also offers a ton of data.

Many states maintain their own higher ed data warehouses.  Add your state’s name to this Google search string, and see what emerges.

Image by GDS Infographics, and used under a Creative Commons license.