Americans with bachelor's degrees stand to make $1 million more in their careers than those with just high school diplomas. Meanwhile, the sticker prices of colleges and loan-default rates have soared, and only 60 percent of enrollees earn a degree within six years. It's never been more important for students and their families to choose the right school.
A minor outbreak of cooperation in Congress could soon make this a little easier. Broadly bipartisan bills in both chambers would build on previous measures to make the costs and benefits of higher education a bit less opaque.
The College Scorecard, devised by the Obama administration, offers prospective students and their families data on admissions, average costs, availability of aid, student demographics and, perhaps most important, graduation rates and median earnings — all on a user-friendly website.
But the scorecard has its shortcomings. In particular, important information is based only on students who receive some sort of federal financial aid. This stems from a 2008 congressional ban on a larger federal database of disaggregated student information. As a result, neither the Education Department nor the National Center for Education Statistics, an independent federal agency, can gather comprehensive data and align it with information from the IRS, Social Security Administration and Department of Veterans' Affairs. Universities are required to report some additional information, but this too is incomplete.
The new proposals would overturn the ban and allow the government to release new metrics on "student progression" — school-specific information on performance by transfer students, veterans and those receiving Pell Grants; post-graduation job and earnings results broken down by majors or academic programs; and graduation rates for nontraditional students such as part-time enrollees.
The bills would let the government access raw data provided by the universities, which would free those institutions from having to re-crunch data every time the Education Department asks. The information could help to streamline the student-loan process, and shed light on the importance of economic background, the value of remedial coursework, and whether first-generation students are at a disadvantage.
So what's the problem? First, the Education Department is reportedly set to unveil a new set of rules that would make public graduates' economic outcomes by major, but otherwise suffers from the same limitations as the current college scorecard. The worry is that lawmakers may deem this sufficient and allow the far superior congressional bills to die.
Congress should get on with it. This is an area where greater transparency is long overdue. Students and their families can't afford to be uneducated about higher education.