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Survey Says: College Presidents Concerned About Transparency

Last week, Inside Higher Ed published its annual survey of more than 700 college and university presidents. Among other disturbing findings in the report (like, nearly nine out of 10 college presidents think Americans don’t understand the purpose of higher education) was a stand-out poor score for transparency efforts. When asked whether the new Administration should maintain the College Scorecard, just 29 percent of surveyed college presidents supported doing so; fully 71 percent said they opposed the idea.

The College Scorecard was created as a service for the 63 percent of new or prospective college students who say they’ve felt lost in looking for colleges or studying up on financial aid. The site was designed by the Department as a user-friendly compilation of never-before-seen, comparable data on student loan debt, repayment, and post-college earnings for every degree-granting college in the country. Over 1.5 million users have visited the Scorecard since its launch in 2015.

So what’s not to like?

The data in the IHE survey offer some clues. In particular, public college presidents were more likely to support maintaining the Scorecard--35 percent, compared with 23 percent for private nonprofit institutions. Among public colleges, presidents of institutions that offer doctoral degrees were most likely to support the Scorecard (45 percent), whereas two- and four-year public degree-granting presidents expressed more reservations (31 and 33 percent supported the Scorecard, respectively).

Public college presidents have hardly made a secret of their biggest concern about higher education data: graduation rates. As mandated by Congress, the Department collects graduation rates for first-time (i.e., non-transfer or returning), full-time enrollees only. But at public four-year institutions, 27 percent of students are part-time; and at public two-year institutions, it’s more than 60 percent, according to the National Student Clearinghouse. And with a larger proportion of older students, as well, the completion rates for first-time, full-time students may not be representative of the student population at many public institutions. The Department recently created another alternative, requiring institutions to begin reporting data that include cohorts of part-time and non-first-time students; once those data are published, it may help to mitigate some of these concerns for public college presidents.

Private nonprofits have a lower incidence of part-time students, though, so completion rates likely aren’t the primary objection for most of them. But with fewer than a quarter of their college presidents in support of the Scorecard, objections are clearly strong. The association representing private nonprofit institutions, the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU), attributes its concern to the thing the Scorecard does best: “monetary measures of value.” Specifically, they argue that students need more qualitative information to select the right school for them.

That’s a good argument if you’re one of the thousands of schools--especially high-priced private nonprofit institutions--whose numbers suggest they may not be offering a bargain to students. But the three most important factors in deciding to go to college were improving employment opportunities, making more money, and getting a good job, a survey of prospective and new college students found. So for the millions of students looking for answers, the argument for less focus on value rings hollow.

While the Scorecard isn’t--and doesn’t pretend to be--the final stop for a student picking a college, it’s a critical first step to help students weed out schools that cost too much and provide too little in terms of helping students to earn a degree and increase their earnings potential. It’s true policymakers need to keep working to improve the quality and coverage of higher education data; we’ll be looking to Rep. Foxx (R-NC), chair of the House Education and Workforce Committee, who’s named transparency the first pillar of reform for the Higher Education Act, to pick up that mantle. But that shouldn’t prevent progress in higher education transparency in the meantime. Students have a right to know how well their schools perform, so that they can make an informed decision before they take on thousands of dollars of debt.

The author worked on the College Scorecard while at the U.S. Department of Education from 2015-2017.