We should let students rate colleges like Yelp, economist suggests

A Gallup economist says a consumer feedback site like Yelp might be able to help prospective college students decide where they should go to college.

"A significant problem that students face is lack of information, lack of clear information, and difficulty accessing it," says Jonathan Rothwell, an economist at Gallup who is also a visiting scholar at the George Washington University Institute of Public Policy.

Rothwell draws his conclusion based on a study he worked on at Gallup in conjunction with the Strada Education Network that involved surveys from nearly 40,000 alumni of 3,500 two- and four-year schools between June 2016 and April 2017 .

Researchers asked participants about their college experiences and its outcomes. For example, participants were asked to provide a ranking of "strongly agree" to "strongly disagree," to a question such as, "You learned important skills during your college courses that you use in your day-to-day life."

Rothwell found that higher ratings were correlated with more traditional measures of quality. For example, higher ratings correlated with higher alumni salaries, higher faculty salaries, better test scores, and more grads who eventually earn doctorates.

After seeing that higher ratings did seem to correlate with better colleges, Rothwell is now advocating for a consumer-oriented tool to help students with their college searches. He likens such an approach to that of Yelp or Fandango, where in some cases the services being offered are complex or highly subjective.

Rothwell is particularly optimistic about how such a tool could help nontraditional students and others who have obligations such as families or jobs.

"My concern there is that they're more likely to go to a school based solely on convenience, and not really consider the qualities of the school," he says. Rothwell says colleges could use the tool themselves, too. For example, they could have their alumni complete a survey similar to the one given by Gallup in order to gain insight into alumni satisfaction and tackle any issues that made alumni unhappy with their experience.

But Rothwell does not pretend that this Yelp-like college data initiative would solve every problem prospective or current college students have. "I think things need to happen other than just informing consumers," he says. But he does think it would solve at least one major problem: "lack of clear information, and difficulty accessing it" (Chan, Chronicle of Higher Education, 6/12; Farkas, Cleveland.com, 6/14).

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