The House kicked off its incremental Higher Education Act reauthorization plan last week with the release of a few pieces of higher education legislation, including the Strengthening Transparency in Higher EducationAct. That bill, authored by Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC) and introduced by members of the House Education and Workforce Committee, would re-up a portion of the law to collect and create better consumer information related to colleges and universities.
Foxx’s bill would make some important tweaks to existing data that could be good news for students. Graduation rates for Pell Grant students, Subsidized Stafford student loan borrowers, and students who received no federal aid would be publicly reported. (Congress already requires institutions to “disclose” Pell Grant graduation rates to students — but schools don’t have to report the information to the Department of Education, and schools often aren’t disclosing the required information anyway, even when they’re asked for it.)
Additionally, right now, college graduation rates are reported only for students enrolled in college for the first time and who are studying full-time. The Foxx bill would broaden the “first-time, full-time” student definition to include non-first-time students. The Department is already planning to make the shift away from first-time, full-time data in its 2015-16 round of data collection, by adding cohorts of non-first-time and non-full-time students to the collection. But nonetheless, Congressional action to reform the existing limitations is an important step.
The legislation would also incorporate all of those new data points on a consumer-tested website with data points related to college enrollment, financial aid, and student outcomes. Already, the U.S. Department of Education collects information and produces consumer data products like the Obama administration’s College Scorecard (a consumer tool designed to provide easy-to-understand information on individual institutions) and the College Navigator website (a more complex, comprehensive institutional profiling website). The newly proposed site sounds a lot like a College Scorecard by another name, but the consumer-testing aspect could make the tool more valuable for students.
Yet even with all the data that the Department already collects and is planning to collect, students still won’t have access to critical information. For example, students say they want information about employment outcomes for graduates. But Rep. Foxx’s bill only nods to that demand. The singular reference to labor market outcomes is a requirement that the consumer-tested website include a link to generic national and regional Bureau of Labor Statistics data on earnings. That information can’t get at the question of whether students at certain institutions fare better in the job market, or whether their earnings are higher over a time period than among similar students at other schools.
Furthermore, while some new students would be added to the graduation rate count, the data would still exclude students who successfully transfer to and complete another program. Colleges have no way in IPEDS of tracking–or getting credit for–those students. That’s a pretty big oversight, given that over 60 percent of students enrolled in four-year colleges have attended more than one institution. It’s especially problematic for community colleges, which have a specific mission of transferring students to four-year programs.
Finally, all data points, from enrollment to outcomes, would still be provided at the institutional level. But as the gainful employment regulations have proven, plenty of bad programs hide within passable schools. Without more granular, program-level data that help students sort the good programs from the ones that are no more than a waste of time and money, better consumer information is still a long way off.
There is one easy way to fix the fatal flaws in Rep. Foxx’s bill: implement a federal student unit record data system. Effectively all of the information that students want and need about colleges is available now, but hidden in the data.
In a student unit record system, schools would simply upload files that look a lot like the ones they already keep. Individuals’ data would be connected across schools to ensure the records are complete, and the Department of Education would report out aggregate totals to the public. The results would include students who transferred across institutions, and could include labor market outcomes like job placement and earnings based on Social Security Administration data.
In fact, this is the central irony of Rep. Foxx’s introducing the House transparency legislation: She was also the author of a provision in the last Higher Education Act reauthorization banning a student unit record system. But to date, the American Association of Community Colleges, Association of Community College Trustees, Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, American Association of State Colleges and Universities, and now the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators are all on the record as supporting a unit record system. That means that all of the associations that represent public colleges–which enroll nearly three out of every four undergraduate students–now support repealing the ban.
With college costs growing and student debt rising, the calls for better data on student outcomes and college value are only growing stronger and more urgent. The Department of Education’s plans to introduce a college rating system this fall has many institutions and their representatives calling for better data to ensure they are fairly represented. With so much public attention moving to the issue, the Band-Aid that Rep. Foxx proposed last week as the inaptly named Strengthening Transparency in Higher Education Act won’t be enough to quell the calls for better data.
For more on the national student unit record system debate, check out our recent report, College Blackout: How the Higher Education Lobby Fought to Keep Students in the Dark.