A New Tool for the College-Bound

Call it Accountability 101. A new Web site set up by a group of colleges and universities says it's offering unvarnished information about member schools

Another salvo in the battle to gain control of the college admissions information process was fired Sept. 26 when a group of nearly 600 independent colleges and universities launched a new Web site that's being billed as a consumer-friendly source of information about the schools. The new U-CAN site, in development for more than a year, is being launched during a push by the federal government to get schools to provide students and parents with more accessible and relevant data. It also comes as some schools are raising questions about the usefulness of privately published rankings such as those in U.S. News & World Report (BusinessWeek, 5/7/07) and other magazines.

The new site was created by the Washington-based National Association of Independent Colleges & Universities (NAICU), which has about 1,000 member schools. Other education groups have recently announced plans to launch similar projects, including the Annapolis Group, the Association of American Universities, and the National Association of State Universities & Land-Grant Colleges.

Consumer-Driven Information

David Warren, president of the NAICU, called his group's University & College Accountability Network—nicknamed U-CAN—a "useful next step" for students navigating the college search process.

"We think it will add substantially to the needs expressed by parents and policymakers with regards to this fundamental question: What is it that a prospective student and a parent of that student need to know to make a college decision?" Warren said in a telephone press conference.

The U-CAN database has been in the works for more than a year and was developed after a series of focus groups with parents and students involved in the college search process.

A typical two-page college profile on the U-CAN site includes colorful graphs that display statistics such as tuition, graduation rates, and enrollments, plus information about campus safety and student life. The site cost $50,000 to set up, a cost being underwritten by the organization. School participation is voluntary. About 440 schools have submitted information so far, and the group says it intends to publish another 150 profiles within about a week.

While navigating the site, students can follow links back to the schools' Web sites or click on a header at the start of the profile where schools can pitch what makes them stand out. "This means you can go beneath the data that is presented and get a much richer, deeper, and more thorough account of that institution," Warren said.

U-CAN Disavow's Thacker's Rebellion

In a statement accompanying the launch, the NAICU noted that the site does not rank schools and denied that it was created to compete with the highly influential U.S. News rankings. "Some institutions view U-CAN as a replacement for the U.S. News rankings. Others do not," the statement said.

The unveiling of the U-CAN database occurred just a day after a meeting at Yale University hosted by the Education Conservancy, a Portland (Ore.) nonprofit whose campaign against the U.S. News rankings (BusinessWeek, 6/27/07) this spring spurred more than 80 college presidents from the Annapolis Group, a consortium of 125 leading liberal arts colleges, to agree to stop participating in parts of the U.S. News surveys. At the meeting in New Haven this week, more than 100 educators, parents, and high school guidance counselors discussed plans to create a "student-centered" Web site that is both interactive and user-friendly.

Education Conservancy President Lloyd Thacker said he envisions creating a Web site larger than the U-CAN database, with data on thousands of schools, from private colleges to large universities. In addition, it would have interactive tools that would let students narrow their college search based on their particular interests and goals. "Our idea is to provide comprehensive information, not just for one group of colleges, for a whole nation of colleges," he said.

Thacker said he is aware that his group's proposal could eventually dovetail with other, similar projects being pursued by education associations. "What might eventually happen is the alphabet-soup kind of effect, with lots of different things coming out that make it more confusing," Thacker said. "I'm interested in moving forward with what we have, but there is always the interest or the possibility of combining."

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