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Christmas in September for Higher Ed Accountability

Earlier this summer, the Obama administration abandoned its plan to rank colleges, and promised that it would instead release a set of public tools and data to help students and families make better college decisions. On the morning of Saturday, September 12, the education policy world awoke to a brand new College Scorecard website featuring long-awaited data on student earnings and debt outcomes.

During an event at New America on Wednesday in conjunction with Washington Monthly magazine, Department of Education Deputy Under Secretary Jamienne Studley compared the debut of the new system to Christmas morning. Prospective students and their families will have more access to information about the outcomes of higher education at a variety of institutions than ever before. According to Studley, there have been over three million page views of the new scorecard since its launch less than a week ago.

Not surprisingly, the public release of earnings and debt information was met with pushback from some institutional leaders and the industry groups that represent them. Other college leaders, however, say open data will help the public hold institutions accountable for providing quality education at a fair value.

Louisiana State University President F. King Alexander and City Colleges of Chicago Chancellor Cheryl Hyman both praised the new public data, linking the availability of such information to more accountability for institutions and states.

As president of the LSU system—a network of five campuses serving more than 30,000 students—Alexander is an outspoken advocate for increased accountability and open data in higher education.

“We know more about the cars we buy than colleges and universities that we invest into for a lifetime,” Alexander said.

Alexander started publishing student debt and earnings data long before the federal government—first at California State University as president of CSU Long Beach, and now at LSU. According to Alexander, institutional accountability that goes beyond accreditation will help keep people from “getting ripped off” by predatory for-profit universities.

Similarly, Hyman, who oversees seven community colleges and 115,000 students, encourages the public release of data and the use of quantifiable metrics not only to measure the success of an institution, but also to force a cultural shift toward accountability to students and their families.

That is what Hyman used her business background to do when she ushered in a new era at the City Colleges of Chicago, in response to an institutional culture she described as “shocking.” When Hyman took the helm, the graduation rate at City Colleges of Chicago was seven percent, and few programs actually aligned with industry standards.

“What publishing this data does more than anything … is change the culture in higher education to say that your success is no longer measured by how many students you enroll, but your success is measured by how many students complete in a timely manner and go on to get successful careers in the area in which you trained them,” Hyman said.

Despite the progress shown by the release of this federal data, Lumina Foundation President and CEO Jamie Merisotis cautioned that the conversation is often still too focused on the “horse race,” comparing outcomes at private versus public versus for-profit higher education providers.

“We should be thinking about improving all of the providers of postsecondary learning and getting them aimed at these outcomes around what students actually need, what they should know, and be able to do,” Merisotis said.

Information on outcomes is a first step in bringing more accountability to institutions of higher education. But as New America’s Education Policy Program director Kevin Carey pointed out at New America’s event on Wednesday and in a recent New York Times piece, some have warned that using economic measures of institutional performance disregards the non-commercial benefits of education, like “learn[ing] to be better citizens and better human beings.”

However, at the City Colleges of Chicago, Hyman said she has never encountered a student who was not focused on education as a means to launching a career.

“I’ve often heard that higher education is about self-discovery,” Hyman said. “Okay, I get it. But it’s hard to discover oneself, or anything else for that matter, if you can’t make rent.”

It’s impossible predict how widely used the College Scorecard will become in the college decision-making process. But while influence among prospective students may be one goal, even if no students look at the data, its public availability and ability to show an institution’s shortcomings is a strong incentive for colleges to improve student success and connection to the job market.

If the release of the Scorecard was Christmas morning, the data itself, and the accountability it encourages, will be the gifts that keep on giving.


Joanne Zalatoris is a communications associate at New America.