Why Act When You Can Ask For A(nother) Study? House Kicks the Can On Better College Data

Blog Post
May 13, 2013

For more on this issue, check out this post from Clare McCann on our sister blog, Ed Money Watch.

For those who care about increased higher education transparency, the last few days have been a trip through the Congressional looking glass, culminating with yesterday’s introduction of a bill to “study” higher education transparency. On Thursday a bipartisan group of senators and representatives introduced the Student Right to Know Before You Go Act, which would help provide students, families, and taxpayers with answers to critical questions like whether students at particular institutions graduate, whether they get jobs, and whether they can comfortably pay back their loans. A televised discussion among Senators Wyden (D-OR), Rubio (R-FL), and Warner (D-VA), Representatives Hunter (R-CA) and Andrews (D-NJ), students, and guidance counselors underscored the urgent need for better information about higher education outcomes and value.  

It seems pretty straightforward. Students, families, and policymakers have questions. And this legislation would provide answers. But the day after the legislation was introduced, an unnamed senior Congressional education staffer said of the effort, “But a federal unit record system is only designed to answer questions no one is asking, namely: how do we bring No Child Left Behind and its command and control mentality to higher education.”

Let’s ignore the intentionally distracting NCLB reference and instead focus on this doozy: “designed to answer questions no one is asking.” Perhaps the staffer has fallen through the looking glass, because from this side it seems like everyone is asking these questions.

Both political parties spent much of last year’s election cycle talking about the need for better college information for students and families. The GOP platform called for greater transparency around “completion rates, repayment rates, future earnings, and other factors that may affect their (college) decisions.” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) put “making it easier for parents and students to make informed decisions about what type of post-high school education is right for them” on his short legislative to-do list. Representative Virginia Foxx (R-NC), chair of the House Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Training, said at a hearing on college data, “We have so much data, and we seem to know so little. What a tragedy for all the money that we’re spending in this country.” President Obama used his State of the Union to unveil a college scorecardthat provides comparable, easy-to-understand indicators of college value. Organizations that represent business and students, including the Chamber of Commerce and Young Invincibles, have been calling for better information for students and employers.

All of this was just in the past year. But the bipartisan drumbeat for transparency started much earlier. Three years ago, the National Governors Association launched its Complete to Compete initiative, which called for answers to a basic set of higher education outcomes questions. And long before that a commission appointed by former Secretary of Education Spellings “urge[d] the creation of a robust culture of accountability and transparency throughout higher education” in the form of a searchable database.

Congress itself has asked these questions. In 2008 it created a federal advisory committee to recommend changes in how graduation rates and other measures of success are calculated for two-year institutions. The Committee on Measures of Student Success issued its recommendations in 2011, which included broadening whose success “counts” to include part-time, transfer, and other students who don’t fit the antiquated first-time, full-time model. Since we currently have no idea how the students who receive hundreds of billions of dollars in federal financial aid are faring (either in or after college), the Committee recommended counting them, too. The success measures weren’t limited to two-year institutions, and they included post-college outcomes like employment. This Congressionally established committee not only identified the questions, it provided specific recommendations on how to answer the questions.

But despite this rare bipartisan agreement on the need for better data, and on the already-identified ways to get the data, Representative Messer (R-IN) introduced a bill yesterday that would require the formation of yet another commission to conduct yet another study on what college information is needed, or whether anyone needs it.

Where have these folks been for the last seven years? Students, families, taxpayers, and policymakers don’t need another study. They need better information. And they need it now.