There is little doubt that an informed consumer makes better choices. That's why pharmaceuticals should include information about side effects and drug interactions, why food should carry nutrition labels and why potentially dangerous products carry warnings.
Public education has gotten much better about informing taxpayers about its product, too. At the touch of a few buttons, Maryland parents can find out how their child's school performed in standardized tests this year and other years, how much their school system is spending on a per-pupil basis and how many are dropping out or graduating in any given year.
Higher education has made strides as well. If you plan to attend the University of Maryland, College Park, for instance, you can find out that the middle 50 percent of SAT scores of incoming freshmen is between 1260 and 1410 and that more than 26,000 students applied for the school's 3,975 openings in the class of 2017.
But what President Barack Obama recently proposed doing as part of his efforts to address the student loan debt problem takes this concept one step further. This month, he proposed attempting to rein in tuition costs by creating a rating system of colleges. Federal student aid would ultimately be tied to a school's performance.
In other words, institutions that rated highest would qualify more students for federal aid than those judged less successful. The goal — trying to get the most bang for the subsidized buck of tuition — is laudable. Parents and students are interested in that result, too. But one has to wonder if whatever measure is created will be adequate to address the differing needs of students and circumstances of these institutions.
Would the same measure that considers a large undergraduate program like the University of Maryland also understand how smaller schools are more suitable for some students, or what online or continuing education can offer adult learners? Much of what the government now knows of schools is based on inputs and not so much on outputs like how much graduates earn or what percentage were hired in their chosen career field.
Certainly, it's fair to wonder what any rating system will make of historically black colleges and universities, many of which are already having financial problems. Those that draw from disadvantaged communities and accept students who are neither well-financed nor well-prepared for college are apt to have higher dropout rates and lower test scores. But if they fail or face severe cutbacks, will other institutions work as diligently to provide the same opportunities to that same population?
Mr. Obama offered scant details of how such a rating system would work, and that's understandable. It will take time to develop. And other strategies he is pursuing, from capping student loan payments to 10 percent of monthly income to calling for an expansion of cost-effective online courses and accelerated degree programs, seem entirely prudent.
As the president noted, the rising cost of college tuition — 163 percent, on average, since 1984 compared to an 8 percent rise in median U.S. household income during that same period — is alarming. And yes, the government should not subsidize schools that do not produce good results.
But as any parent of a prospective college student can tell you, there are a lot of choices out there and a lot of different kinds of students with entirely different needs. Higher education is already competitive; the problem is it's costly. Wouldn't it be easier to simply put better information in the hands of its customers?
Still, Mr. Obama deserves high marks for entering the fray beyond his recent crusade for lower interest rates on student loans. As we've noted before, making education more affordable shouldn't begin and end at interest rates; it requires a much broader approach that not only ensures the adequacy of funding from government, private industry and students but also considers the spending side of the equation and whether, in this digital age, there aren't more efficient ways to impart knowledge than the centuries-old model.
Given that Congress would have to approve any plan to tie aid to performance, it's probably not going anywhere soon. It doesn't require an advanced degree to recognize the institution is likely too dysfunctional to get anything done on such a controversial topic. But if U.S. higher education is to remain the world's gold standard, the twin problems of out-of-control costs and rising student debt will require more than the short-term bandages they've gotten out of Washington so far.