In almost every modern industry, technology is changing the way that users access information. GPS-based applications like Waze provide commuters with real time, crowd-sourced traffic updates, while websites like E-Trade and Yelp give consumers unprecedented transparency into the financial and restaurant worlds, respectively. And the information flow goes both ways: not only can consumers get real-time updates, they can also communicate with other users about the quality of the products and services on offer.
But education remains a largely opaque sector, especially in Latin America. Parents in the region don't generally have access to information about the quality of K-12 schools, leading them to make decisions based on other factors, like location or the decisions of their friends. This is true even of private schools, which "don't share the real education indicators with parents," says Massimo Mazzone, the founder of Cadmus Academies, a new network of low cost private schools in Central America. "Their positioning is based much more on things like the comfort and security of the facilities rather than statistics on college acceptance or job placement rates."
Much the same is true in higher education. Rankings focus on the gleaming campus buildings, how much professors publish, and the ever-growing endowments, not the actual value for students' future salary and career prospects. Regardless of whether one chooses a traditional four-year college or some kind of technical or vocational training, there is almost no good information on where graduates eventually end up.
It remains unclear why there isn't more demand for such information, or why high-quality institutions--which should be flattered by the success of their students--wouldn't be eager to provide it. What is clear is that such opacity incurs a social cost. "Nontraditional students find it especially difficult to finish [their education]," concludes a report from the Lumina Foundation's Committee for Economic Development, in large part due to "uncertainty relating to educational options, and uncertainty around the eventual benefits to continuing one's education."
Robust information on those benefits is critical for students, but it is also important for holding government-funded institutions accountable. In the United States, as in Latin America, the current accreditation system is generally a privately-run process, despite the over $75 billion of annual direct federal support for the higher education sector. Beginning in 2013, the Obama administration launched a much-needed debate over accountability with a "call to set benchmarks for affordability and student outcomes as criteria for receiving federal student financial aid."
Where will these benchmarks come from? There are already a number of startups bridging the gap. Payscale.com and Collegemeasures.org are two that provide data on college outcomes around the country, while Beyondeducation.org works with the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity to provide state-mandated information on the employment and earnings status of Florida graduates. In Latin America Qfuturo.com is working in connecting people talents with studies, careers and income levels.
An innovative approach has also come out of the Brookings Institution, with its "Beyond College Rankings" project. Brookings seeks to clarify the actual "value added" of a particular school or degree, over and above the other confounding factors, such as student race or income, that influence outcomes. Their report finds that many smaller, lesser-known, and non-traditional schools deliver equal or greater value compared with the nationally-recognized heavyweights.
In Latin America, there are also the publicly supported programs launched by education ministries across the region. "Chile Califica [a Chilean government skills training program] and the Labor Force Observatory for Education in Colombia are two very good examples of how governments are helping to provide more information on the job outcomes and income returns of post-secondary education," says Francisco Marmolejo, a higher education specialist at the World Bank.
Meanwhile, studies by multilateral institutions, including the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank, can throw more light on this phenomenon. The Andean Development Bank (CAF), for instance, analyzes the sector in its "Technical Education and Professional Development in Latin America" report. "Easy access to useful information on the supply and demand of various courses, can contribute to overcoming information asymmetries and addressing the market failure that occurs when firms cannot or simply fail to invest in worker training," the CAF authors conclude.
There is great potential for new technologies to help address these "asymmetries," and better connect students with career paths most suited to their interests and talents. Crowdsourced information from millions of graduates could be a profoundly disruptive force, pushing educational institutions to focus on what really matters and providing peer-to-peer guidance for younger students trying to decide on their path.
In the words of Brookings' David Wessel, "prospective students deserve good, and easily digestible, information about job-placement rates and earnings of programs they are considering." Students in Latin America are demanding more responsive education systems, as protest movements in Chile, Brazil, and Colombia have shown. Progress is underway, but as Wessel concludes, "We haven't gone as far as we can."