Roberson: College Applicants Need More Data to Make the Right Choice. 3 Reasons Congress’s College Dashboard Will Shortchange Students

By Amanda Janice Roberson | February 27, 2018

Teen students take a tour of the University of Southern California. (Photo credit: Jeffrey Greenberg/UIG via Getty Images)

It’s college application season. First-time students, returning students, full-time students, and part-time students are researching which colleges will meet their academic and career interests and best position them for success in the workforce. A quick online search is all it takes to find this information, right?

Think again.

Online resources like College Scorecard and College Navigator help students learn about a school’s graduation rates or what graduates earn once they are out in the workforce. But these data are woefully incomplete.

Take the commonly quoted federal graduation rate, for example. It counts just a fraction of current college students — only those who attended college full time and for the first time. This leaves out graduation rates for 53 percent of students across all institutions. At community colleges, the graduation rate only reflects about 1 in 4 students.

Fortunately, federal policymakers are taking these data shortcomings seriously. Lawmakers in both the House and Senate have introduced legislation that would strengthen the information students and families use to decide where to enroll.

Developing a federal student-level data network, as proposed in the College Transparency Act, would enable the National Center for Education Statistics to produce reliable information about college graduation and post-college earnings for all students. By matching existing student-level education data from colleges and universities with data from federal agencies, like the Departments of Treasury, Defense, and Veterans Affairs, the legislation seeks to help all students — regardless of when, where, and how they attend college — understand the return on their higher education investment by calculating average earnings by major for all colleges across the nation. It would also make available aggregate enrollment and outcomes information on groups of students, such as veterans, servicemembers, and federal student aid recipients, that are not consistently accessible.

Conversely, another recent legislative proposal, the PROSPER Act, fails to provide prospective students with complete, accurate information. The College Dashboard, the data tool proposed in PROSPER, would report earnings outcomes for only some college students. Students who didn’t take out a federal loan or receive a Pell Grant — roughly 30 percent of all students — wouldn’t be represented. The act seeks to make small improvements in the existing data, like the inclusion of earnings, debt, and loan repayments by major, but lacks the comprehensive policy change we need — change that is clearly articulated in the College Transparency Act.

Here are three reasons the PROSPER Act’s College Dashboard proposal falls short:

  • Students and families need complete and accurate information to make fully informed college decisions.

As college costs continue to rise, students are seeking more information as they make critical and expensive decisions about where to enroll. The PROSPER Act would maintain the limitations of current data systems, missing an important opportunity to improve resources available to students and families.

  • Some statistics on the College Dashboard could be misleading.

At some schools, few students receive federal grants and loans, so the earnings data would represent only a portion of the student population. Consider the California Community College system: In 2016–17, only 21 percent of students received Pell Grants and 1.6 percent took out at least one loan, according to the college chancellor’s office. By counting only students who receive federal aid, average earnings data would disregard the outcomes of about 4 in 5 California community college students. Students must have accurate, complete data when deciding where to go to college and what to study.

  • Students will lose valuable information on student loan outcomes.

As part of the PROSPER Act, the cohort default rate — the rate at which student borrowers default on their loans — would be replaced by a program-level loan repayment rate. Our research found that a combination of the two can provide students and families with a full picture of student loan outcomes: both when students default and when they pay down their debt. We should seek to strengthen the cohort default rate instead of abandoning it.

With the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act in progress, lawmakers should seize this opportunity to reform federal postsecondary data policy to count all students and all outcomes. The growing support for better postsecondary data is unmistakable — many leaders across the higher education community understand that, with robust data, high school students can make fully informed decisions about where to attend college and what to study. Further, by illuminating enrollment patterns and workforce outcomes, federal, state, and institutional policymakers can address equity gaps in our postsecondary system and help to ensure all students can reach their full potential.

Amanda Janice Roberson is senior research analyst for the Institute for Higher Education Policy.

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