Recently, my colleague Anthony P. Carnevale made a compelling case about the need to empower students and families with the information they need to make good decisions about where to go to college and what to study. As he said:
When people choose to go to college, they don’t take a test drive. They are making one of the biggest investments of their lives. They deserve to know what they are paying for.
I couldn’t agree more.
Students deserve quality information about college outcomes, and that data should be based on both their college and their major. Carnevale’s thorough research shows that a student’s major matters immensely in the economic return on a degree.
But the House Republican proposal Carnevale touts — the PROSPER Act — would settle for incomplete information, even though another plan — the bipartisan, bicameral College Transparency Act (CTA) — would not.
PROSPER would publish average earnings for each major at each college for a partial subset of students, ignoring results for the 30 percent of students who do not receive federal financial aid.
In other words, some students won’t count.
At some institutions, such as the California community colleges where four in five students don’t receive federal aid, large majorities of students wouldn’t count.
Why shouldn’t all students know which program would offer the best return on their investment? This kind of information would truly empower students as they make fully informed decisions and navigate the higher education marketplace. No student should be forced to settle for incomplete and inaccurate information, especially when the solution is right in front of policymakers.
The College Transparency Act, introduced in May, would advance evidence-based decision-making by publishing institution and program-level data on college outcomes for all students based on securely collected data. It would respect students’ rights to both privacy and quality information. This transformative solution could and should be part of the PROSPER Act.
Just as students need reliable information to help navigate the college search process, lawmakers also need accurate data to enact evidence-based policies. College leaders, many of whom often cite data use as a driving factor in helping them better serve students, need this information. Better information would help college leaders target resources in ways that narrow inequities in degree completion and, ultimately, help more students become successful graduates.
For policymakers and institutions to promote equitable outcomes, we must count all students and measure how low-income students — who often rely on federal aid — fare compared with their wealthier peers who can afford college without aid. For our lowest-income students, earning a college degree means ascending into the economic security of the middle class.
Without the full-scale reform that a solution such as the College Transparency Act offers, we will continue to be plagued by holes and inadequacies in the information people across the country use for college decision-making: earnings metrics limited to federally aided students, for one. But also graduation rates that are limited to first-time, full-time students and a lack of disaggregation by race.
As policymakers undertake modernizing the laws that govern our colleges and universities, they have an opportunity to fix this flaw in the law. House Republicans took a small step forward with this recent proposal. It simply doesn’t go far enough.
Michelle Asha Cooper is president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy, a nonprofit organization dedicated to giving low-income, minority and other underrepresented groups a pathway to a college degree.