A Little Information Could Go A Long Way

January 14, 2011 | Blog


In a new report, Filling in the Blanks: How Information Can Affect Choice in Higher Education, Andrew Kelly and Mark Schneider of the American Enterprise Institute examine the role that information can play in the college choice process. One thousand parents in five states were asked which of two similar colleges they would recommend to their high school-age child. Half of the parents were given information about the colleges’ six-year graduation rates, while half were not. The researchers found that parents who were provided information about graduation rates were fifteen percentage points more likely to recommend the college with the higher graduation rate to their child, with larger differentials for parents who reported having less information about colleges and who had lower levels of education.

The intervention shows the importance of providing salient information to the parents of high school students. However, because parents in the study were making a theoretical decision instead of an actual decision that would affect their child, they had less of an incentive to think as carefully about their choice. This might result in effects that are larger than in real life, especially where parents have evenmore information about the two colleges being compared. A logical next step would be to repeat this experiment with high school students to see if the results significantly differ. Encouraging or requiring colleges to publicize their graduation rates may lead parents and students to choose colleges at which the student is more likely to graduate, as they take this information into account. In any case, even a small effect of additional information can make this low-cost intervention sound public policy.


  1. Reply


    January 14, 2011

    "In any case, even a small effect of additional information can make this low-cost intervention sound public policy."

    I'd hardly call publicizing graduation rates a "low-cost" intervention - and not just because we still don't have a consensus on how to calculate those rates, but also the accompanying research and evaluation investment required from many IHEs to comply. Not to mention that challenges of ensuring that relatively uninformed students and parents know enough about the issues to be able to understand the differences between 4-year graduation rates and 2-year graduations rates, and accompanying noise in that data.

    Long and short, I think it's at best misleading (at worst disingenuous) to suggest that this is an "easy" fix.

    p.s., the link to the AEI report is dead.

  2. Reply

    Liam Goldrick

    January 14, 2011

    Link to AEI paper has been fixed:


  3. Reply


    January 14, 2011

    Hi Marktropolis,

    Thanks for your comments. I do think that publicizing graduation rates is a low-cost intervention. At the very least, the graduation rates reported to IPEDS could be used. Since these data are already collected, there would be no additional cost. We could spend more money to produce better outcome measures (i.e. a federal unit record student database), but the per-student investment would still be quite small.

    I completely agree that there are significant concerns with using graduation rates as outcomes, especially when comparing two-year colleges with four-year colleges. However, I strongly feel that providing imperfect information is better than providing no information about graduation rates.

    Using current data to provide moderately useful information at a cost of near zero is sound public policy. It's up to the reader to conclude whether spending additional money to get better data is worthwhile.


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