Blog: The Educated Reporter

A Look at Net Price Data and the White House College Ratings

Source: EWA

On at least one measure of the White House’s bold plan to rate the nation’s colleges, a team of journalists may have beat the executive branch to the punch.

As Kim Clark of Money explains in her primer on the newly-released framework for the administration’s Postsecondary Institution Ratings System (PIRS), the White House “may look at either the overall average net prices, or the average net prices paid by families divided into five income groups, such as those earning up to $30,000, or those earning more than $100,000.”

As the online data tool Tuition Tracker shows, the net prices for these five income groups at a particular college can vary dramatically, both in dollar amounts and year-to-year trends. The Education Writers Association partnered with The Dallas Morning News, The Hechinger Report and the Omaha World-Herald to create this tool that measures the average net price cost of more than 3,700 colleges and universities. The database, released in March 2014 and newly updated with data for the 2013-2013 academic year, provides information on how much  students pay after all government and institutional aid that student receives is considered.

Journalists relied on the tool to report on surprising college affordability trends in their coverage areas. The Miami Herald found that among Florida colleges, “Wealthier students have been hit with tuition hikes and, on average, still pay more for college educations. But the rate of their ‘net price’ hikes has risen slower than for poorer kids.” The article goes on to explain that, “[i]t’s a trend driven by business demands. Colleges use scholarships as sales incentives to lure students, including from well-off families who are still paying the heftiest tuition bill after that discount.”

Tuition Tracker also can help reporters tease out trends within schools that appear to charge similar tuition fees. The Richmond Times-Dispatch reported that while the  University of Virginia and Virginia Commonwealth University differ by a few hundred dollars in costs in overall sticker prices, low-income students pay on average three times as much at VCU than at UVA.

What Tuition Tracker can’t do, and what critics of the White House’s college ratings plan say the administration doesn’t have the capacity to do either, is measure how much a particular college’s degree help a student earn after graduation. As I noted in a September article about the forthcoming college ratings plan, the “U.S. Department of Education lacks access to a serial number that captures all the academic and workforce activity of a student, known as a student-unit record. Federal law currently bars the government from creating such a tool.”

Clark, who spoke to journalists at EWA seminar on higher education in September, recognizes the data required to hold schools accountable are imperfect, but she’s short on sympathy. “Institutions have been fighting accountability for years,” Clark told the audience. “A lot of this stuff we’re having to get outside of the institution because they refused to provide accurate information.”

Even if the administration builds a ratings plan that has teeth and is reliable, experts question how well consumers will receive the data, particularly aspiring college students from low-income or minority households.

If it’s just another website, said at the time Michelle Asha Cooper, director of the Institute for Higher Education Policy, “that’s not the best way to reach students these days, and we have to remember that.”