Shining (a little) Light on Net Price

July 1, 2011 | Blog


I must admit, I got a little excited when I (virtually) opened the Chronicle this morning and saw that the Department of Education had published its own personal scarlet letter list of the colleges and universities charging the highest net price. Finally, the government did what government can do best– draw our attention to important national trends that make our local (personal) problems into national (public) ones.

I was also psyched about the list because it’s another step towards helping change the deeply entrenched public perception that the sticker price listed by colleges is the actual price people pay. It’s not– since almost everyone get some kind of discount– but that fact is so little known that some of us are pretty convinced that sticker shock exerts effects on the decisions made by families with little information.

But as I read about this list, I deflated. First of all, it’s clearly obtuse. It’s got 54 lists made up of 6 variables and 9 sectors. 54 lists. Come on…most of this country still thinks USA Today is a good, thorough read. And the thing is, some of the smarter government guys know it’s too much– but hey, Congress said so, so here we are (look at the quote by professor and NCES chief honcho Jack Buckley, who is far too polite when he says “this definition of net price is far from perfect.” If only I were so diplomatic…).

There we are–getting it done, but not getting it done right.

Moreover, in talking about the power of the list, some officials clearly want to take this too far, suggesting the list tells us something about institutional “performance.” Um, no– not at all. Net price tells us nothing about the impact the institution has on students–only about the price it charges.

All that to say– this is a decent step in the right direction but we can and must do more. This is prime time for higher education, we’ve got a growing cadre of smart folks paying attention to the national problems of affordability and degree completion and we need to develop metrics that deliver the kind of information parents and students can use (sorry, I refuse to call people “consumers”) in a manner in which those who need it most can find it accessible. How about tweeting the highlights of the list for starters? Arne? David? Jack? You up for it?

Postscript: More coverage of this story, including a quote from me, here on Marketplace on NPR.

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