In the past month, nearly 3 million students graduating from college this year walked across the stage to collect a diploma and a handshake. But millions more students lacked some of the data that might help guide them through one of the most important investment of their lives.
In large part, students don’t have information on things like graduation rates or graduate earnings because federal law imposes severe restrictions on the U.S. Department of Education’s ability to collect student-level information. As a Democrat and Republican who have served in federal policymaking roles on and off of Capitol Hill, we bear a measure of responsibility for the existence of the law.
One of us helped lay the groundwork for the ban as a higher education policy adviser to the chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. The other spent seven years in the Obama administration designing initiatives to increase transparency for students, such as the College Scorecard, but never proposed revisiting the ban.
We both now believe that it is necessary that Congress change the law to equip not just policymakers — but students — with the information they need to make more informed higher education decisions.
The need for good information is increasingly urgent. Colleges and universities produce a wide range of employment and graduation outcomes with an equally wide-ranging price tag. Against that backdrop, the importance of understanding key measures like graduation rates and the economic returns on educational investments is more important than ever.
To be clear, data on postsecondary enrollment and outcomes are abundant. But key measures of student success — with the level of detail both students and policymakers need to make decisions — remains hidden from sight. For example:
- A first-generation student planning to transfer from a community college to a four-year institution has no way to know how well the schools she’s considering serve students like her.
- A student of color deciding between enrolling in two different programs has no way to know how their expected earnings outcomes may compare across two fields at a single school, or across different schools.
- Neither schools nor the federal government know the average post-graduate earnings of any student who paid for college without federal financial aid, but who benefited from other federal investments like the American Opportunity Tax Credits.
Ironically, incomplete data is produced at unnecessary cost. Colleges currently carry the burden of completing numerous annual surveys that could be streamlined while also becoming more useful.
When it enacted the ban in 2008, Congress was concerned that the Department of Education would not properly protect student data – a goal that is no less important today. But 10 years later, the bipartisan, bicameral College Transparency Act (CTA) provides a sensible path forward for doing so.
The CTA would enable the creation of a data system that protects students’ privacy and data security, as well as providing a complete picture of higher education outcomes for students. Along with 35 bipartisan cosponsors in the House and Senate, the CTA is also supported by over 130 organizations, including community colleges, land-grant universities and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
There is a growing wave of both Republicans and Democrats who recognize the untenable costs for students and policymakers continuing to operate with blind spots. We know firsthand the importance of providing students with information that will help them make smart, strategic choices for educational and economic success.
College costs continue to rise, and the lowest-income students persistently bear a disproportionate burden of student debt. Comprehensive data alone won’t solve this problem, but keeping students in the dark about their likely return on investment at different institutions and programs offers no help at all.
The good news is that both the House and the Senate are beginning their periodic review of higher education laws, a perfect opportunity to fix this outdated provision. We do not need to choose between student success and complete information; we should tackle the shortcomings of both. Now is the time to act in order to provide information that is useful for all of today’s students with their diverse financial capabilities, backgrounds, educational interests, and career goals. Let this year be the last year when students have to make college choices before we start to fix the problem.
Alison Griffin is a two-time higher education policy advisor to the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce having served under the leadership of former Chairman John Boehner. She is currently a Senior Vice President with Whiteboard Advisors, a strategic policy and research firm based in Washington, DC.
James Kvaal is a former deputy domestic policy adviser to President Obama. He is currently President of The Institute for College Access & Success (TICAS), based in Oakland, California, and Washington, DC.