Back in 2006, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said that American colleges needed to be more transparent: “it is essential that clear, comprehensive and comparative data about colleges and universities be collected and made available to students, parents, and policymakers.”

Colleges went to work on this, sort of. Private colleges produced U-CAN. Public colleges unveiled College Portraits.
Neither of these networks really work, say Education Sector and the American Enterprise Institute. In a joint report, False Fronts? Behind Higher Education’s Voluntary Accountability Systems, researchers from the two organizations indicate that the networks are not helpful to students and families. The report says that both services contain:

serious flaws that undermine their utility as engines of accountability. U-CAN… is essentially a re-packaging of data that are available elsewhere, and it provides almost no new information about costs, student experiences, or learning outcomes to parents and prospective students. [College Portraits]… also suffers from numerous shortcomings: Not all institutions participate, particularly those at the top and bottom of the quality scale. The site is deliberately designed to thwart the easy comparison of institutions, despite the fact that the database was ostensibly created to facilitate consumer choice. And many of the most crucial… data elements are incomplete, non-comparable, or selected in a way that often obscures differences between institutions.

Neither network, according to the report, really seems to be useful for consumers. U-CAN, in fact, merely seems like “a pre-emptive attempt to fend off federal and state regulators.” The report indicated that College Portraits was a more useful network, though the information about college pricing displayed in the Web site was so confusing that price comparison was difficult, if not impossible.

Predictably, neither network appeared to make any real effort to look objectively at how much students actually learned at different colleges.

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Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer