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Call for Greater Scrutiny of College Advertising

The Brookings Institution is calling for greater oversight of college spending on advertising, particularly from for-profit institutions.

In a report published Tuesday, the institution said policy makers should do more to enforce laws prohibiting misrepresentation in college advertising as well as create additional measures to enhance transparency and accountability.

Higher education institutions spent roughly $370 million on advertising in 2017 — the most recent year for which Kantar Media "Ad$pender" data are available. That's down from a peak of $1.2 billion in 2013. The decline in ad spending echoes a decline in enrollment, but at a lag, the Brookings report authors said.

For-profit colleges account for a disproportionate share of ad spending, outspending nonprofit institutions by four to one and public institutions by 20 to one on a per-student basis. Some for-profit institutions spent up to 85 percent of their reported student services expenditures on commercial advertising, the report found.

To gain a clearer understanding of how tuition dollars are spent, the Brookings authors call for institutions to separately report advertising, recruitment and marketing expenditures to the federal government's Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System to avoid “potentially misleading claims of high spending on student services.” The report echoes many concerns raised by the Century Foundation, which published a critical analysis of how much institutions spend on instruction and teaching last year.

“Whether college advertising is desirable from a social perspective depends critically on the content of the advertising and the quality of education provided by the advertising college,” wrote the Brookings authors. “We suggest that policymakers do more to enforce existing laws prohibiting misrepresentation in college advertising and consider taking additional measures to enhance transparency and accountability in the for-profit sector.”

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