Even though research has shown that a college education provides enormous individual and public returns on investment, steep tuition increases and a stagnant job market have left students, families, and taxpayers wondering whether a college degree is truly worth it. Why? Although consumers have good data on the value of college degrees in general, they have very little data on the value of specific degrees from specific colleges. Between the President’s State of the Union and University of Michigan speech, and the Senate HELP hearing on college affordability, there now seems to be traction behind showing college value through transparency. On Thursday, Senator Wyden introduced the “Student Right to Know Before you Go Act, which just might turn the conversation surrounding value and transparency into action.
Like President Obama’s proposed College Scorecard, Senator Wyden’s act would help students access key indicators of college value before they invest precious time and money. The President’s proposal, however, doesn’t address how the data needed for the scorecard are to be collected. And it’s the how that makes Wyden’s proposal a true boon to students, institutions, and taxpayers. We currently have a hodgepodge of unconnected data systems linked to numerous, redundant reporting requirements. It’s the worst of all worlds—institutions feel overwhelmed by the amount of data they have to report to both the states and the feds; and yet students and policymakers still don’t have the information they need to make informed choices. Federal data, for example, only allow us to about graduation rates of first-time full-time undergraduates—but these students make up a smaller and smaller portion of the college population each year. And we have no actual data about further education or employment outcomes for students. Wyden’s proposal would change that. It would also relieve institutional burden while providing deeper, richer, and more useable information.
This proposal would change the way the federal Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) works, by creating an interoperable, state-based, privacy-protected, individual-level data system that includes key indicators of college value such as retention, completion, earnings, and debt. Forty-six states already have some sort of student unit record collection. This is due, in small part, to a half a billion dollar federal investment that is dramatically expanding many of these systems to include connections to K-12 and workforce. Yet these systems don’t talk to each other and institutions are still required to report to the feds. Wyden’s bill would make states the official collector and reporter of data. It would also ensure that inter and intrastate systems can talk to each other in the same language so that we (students, parents, taxpayers, policymakers, and researchers) can follow the value of private and public investments from high school to and through college and to the workforce within and across state lines.
And the beauty of it all? All of the data are privacy-protected. We will be able to answer questions at a very granular level— like whether Pell students with a degree in X from college Y are able to make a decent living and manage their debts—without identifying who the students are. There will still be critical questions that we won’t be able to answer, however–like whether students are learning anything. This isn’t a flaw in the bill–it’s a flaw in a higher education system that doesn’t have real, comparable, measures of student learning. But the bill is a critical first step in demystifying the “black box” of an increasingly expensive private and public investment. Wyden is moving from conversation to action; I hope others are ready to do the same.
(Note: Speaking of transparency—I was one of many that provided feedback to Senator Wyden’s office on this proposal)