College debt is a hot topic right now. Elizabeth Warren wants to cancel most of it. Bernie Sanders wants to cancel all of it. Donald Trump loves the idea of bankruptcy (not from college debt — just as a general principle).
But since forgiving student debt, like any meaningful reform in America, is a silly pipe dream, let’s instead fix it by eliminating information asymmetry. Because if there’s anything American college students are not, it’s informed consumers.
Colleges are expensive, and costs have grown wildly faster than overall wage growth. We all know that some majors, and some for-profit colleges, provide almost no value. But since undergraduate education is a cash cow for universities, self-regulation of tuition growth — growth used to boost spending on new dorms, rec centers, and bureaucrats — by the universities themselves is utterly unrealistic.
The crowning achievement of the Food and Drug Administration — right alongside keeping children from dying of Salmonella — is accurate, mandatory, Nutrition Facts. Nutrition Facts are a universal constant. Without them, the American consumer would be forced to perform difficult calculus like “quantify how much lard is in a medium-sized lardburger.”
So, building on the wild success of Nutrition Facts, here’s my modest proposal: Federal Department of Education mandated Education Facts labeling:
This summary statistics table will give students the ability to identify which colleges can actually improve their futures, and which exist mainly as a parasitic drain on society. Advertising will be totally legal — but must come coupled with vital statistics. These will focus on:
- Debt. The big kahuna. How far underwater is the average Philosophy major when they swim off the graduation stage?
- Salary and employment. 5 years post-graduation, where is your career? Can you dig yourself out of your debt before your children die?
- Grad school acceptance. If you’re going to die in debt, at least do it in style. Can your undergraduate education help shelter you from the real-world with another 8-15 years of graduate school?
These statistics won’t just be available online. McDonalds publishes nutrition facts online, but the mobility scooter market is as hot as ever. These Education Facts will be attached to every form of advertisement produced by an institution of higher learning.
To help build a vision of this fully-informed world, I have illustrated a few examples:
College brochures — The paper deluge that every high-school student wades through during Junior through Senior years. Education Facts would help triage this garbage pile, by filtering the wheat from the for-profit scams:
Billboards: Colleges are huge on billboards now-days. It is only appropriate that claims like “career launching” be substantiated, in similarly giant font:
Sports: College sports are, without a doubt, the most ironic yet effective form of higher-education advertising on the planet. The only ethical use of this time and attention is to put numbers and figures in front of the eyeballs of impressionable high-school students:
This will not be an easy transition for America. While calorie-labelling Frappuchinos at Starbucks inspired consternation, guilt, and shame across America, it did in fact cut calorie consumption markedly.
Education Facts will hurt lousy colleges. It will hurt schools which peddle useless majors to naive students. But the students of America will come out of it stronger, more informed, and more solvent than ever before.