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A Third Act Act For College Transparency

In March, Congressional leaders reintroduced the College Transparency Act in a bid to make better data available to help both students and policymakers, a move made more urgent by the pandemic.

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Coleen Gabhart wanted to choose the right college. Her family would not be able to help her pay the cost of tuition, so she had little margin of error.

A number-cruncher by nature, her instinct was to look for data on outcomes for program graduates — not just just completion rates but typical career paths, salaries, and hiring rates. The Shoals, Ind., resident was shocked at how hard they were to come by.

“I’m someone who really likes to research, and I couldn’t find data on these college programs,” Gabhart said. She started at a two-year program in agricultural business, but it offered little information on job prospects for graduates and turned out not to suit her career goals. In the end, she transferred to Purdue University’s Krannert School of Management, home to a program that provided much richer data on job placement and earnings outcomes. There she felt confident that she would walk away from college gainfully employed.

But the detour cost Gabhart, 23, a full year and added $5,000 to her student loan debt, a cost that has been hard to shoulder. “Not having the data readily accessible, and not having enough of it, set me back,” she said.

For most students in Gabhart’s position, it’s a struggle to find clear information about their college options. In March, a bipartisan coalition in the House and Senate reintroduced the College Transparency Act (CTA), legislation that aims to remedy this problem by ensuring that students and their families have access to better data on higher education outcomes, especially on equity.

“The CTA gives advocates and policymakers the tools to identify where we should direct our efforts and our resources in higher education,” Kelly McManus, director of higher education at Arnold Ventures, said. “It’s a necessary prerequisite to close inequities in our system.”

'Data-Rich but Information-Poor'

The legislation would lift the ban on student-level data collection set forth in the Higher Education Act and create a user-friendly, privacy-protected data network where students can see reporting on enrollment, completion, and post-college earnings. It would also disaggregate the data by race, ethnicity, and income status, which will highlight issues and opportunities for improvement in the quality and equity of the country’s higher education system.

Experts and policymakers have long supported the CTA. But political opposition from data-privacy advocates and for-profit colleges has twice killed the legislation. With a new Congress in place and the challenges of higher education during the COVID-19 pandemic still lingering, supporters of the bill are poised to overcome this opposition and the CTA may have its best chance of passing.

“Higher education is 'data-rich but information-poor,'” as McManus puts it. That is, colleges today do plenty of reporting, but the picture painted by that reporting is incomplete and therefore little help to students, policymakers, and institutions.

One problem is that the only students included in nationally collected data are those who receive federal funding through Title IV financial aid like Pell Grants and attend college full-time. The reporting system does not count students who receive no federal financial aid, transfer students, or part-time students. When published, national student data are also not separated by demographics like race, ethnicity, and income status.

This puts students at a major disadvantage when selecting a school, one of the most expensive and important decisions of their lives. “Most students who are about to enroll in higher education say the reason they're doing that is because they want to get a good job,” Clare McCann, deputy director for federal higher education policy with New America's Education Policy Program, said. “But they have very little information to go on about where they'll have the best opportunities.”

For policymakers seeking to regulate the higher education sector — for example, by denying federal aid dollars to institutions with poor outcomes — the lack of data often makes achievement gaps all but invisible. “There are huge gaps in who succeeds, who goes to college, and who gets the best jobs after it,” McCann said. “But those inequities have been very hard to see, historically.”

Schools themselves can also face roadblocks in finding the data that would help them improve their outcomes. “Institutions need access to better data to answer questions about how students are faring at their institution, and how they're faring after they leave and enter the workforce, to ensure that students are receiving value for the investment that they make in their education,” said Mamie Voight, interim president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy, a nonprofit that promotes student equity in higher education.

There are huge gaps in who succeeds, who goes to college, and who gets the best jobs after it. But those inequities have been very hard to see, historically.
Clare McCann New America deputy director for federal higher education policy

The CTA would create a website with complete data that counts all students and outcomes. That website would sit within the National Center for Education Statistics, which uses strong security standards to protect student privacy. Voight said that this would go a long way toward informing evidence-based policies to improve equity in college programs.

The COVID Effect

The COVID-19 pandemic has made these issues more urgent. The Department of Education has faced challenges in distributing the funds provided through the CARES Act because it did not have the data to calculate the formulas that Congress wrote into that law. “The dollars needed to get out the door to help institutions and students who were navigating the COVID-19 crisis,” Voight said. “We simply should not have such limitations when Congress can actually bring the better data within reach, right now, through the College Transparency Act.”

The lack of data also led to missed opportunities to understand and address the effects of the pandemic. It is well known that Black borrowers suffer particularly from the burden of student loan debt. But without access to data disaggregated by race, policymakers have struggled to detect the effects of the pandemic on this population and respond with aid.

The impact of higher education’s move to online learning platforms is also unknown. Experts say that different delivery methods — fully online, in-person, and a hybrid of the two — likely affected completion rates, persistence rates, and ultimately student success. But those numbers are only available in aggregate form and will be outdated by the time they are made public.

“The pandemic will be long over before we see the results of these changes,” McCann said. “Having distance education data, which is another element that the College Transparency Act includes, would have given us access to really timely information about what happened to students who were studying on campus and forced online, who decided to stay online, and who dropped out.”

An Uphill Battle

The CTA is popular among lawmakers, and 90 percent of Americans surveyed believe schools should make data on key indicators of quality publicly available, according to a survey from New America. Still, the legislation has faced an uphill battle politically. Tamara Hiler, director of education at Third Way, a nonprofit policy advocacy group that has supported the legislation for the past five years, said that she was warned it was a nonstarter: “We were told right off the bat that this is a third rail.”

It stalled once in 2017 and again on its reintroduction in 2019. Both advocates and elected officials were vexed that it did not appear in Congress’s 2020 end-of-year deal. The biggest obstacle has been Rep. Virginia Foxx, Republican of North Carolina, who wrote the student-level data ban in 2008 and is the ranking member on the House Education Committee. Foxx and other critics of the act, including private colleges and civil libertarians, have focused on privacy concerns, and Republicans on the committee, even those who agree with lifting the ban, have sought to avoid disagreement.

With Congress now controlled by Democrats, advocates like Hiler and McCann are hopeful about the CTA’s recent reintroduction and see a promising new opportunity to pass it. In the last Congress, many hoped it would pass as part of a Higher Education Act reauthorization, but those negotiations stalled in the Senate.

“The question now,” Hiler said, “is what are the potential other vehicles in which we can have CTA move, so that we don't have to wait for another Congress.” Third Way has been working with local grassroots leaders in key states to put pressure on representatives who have not yet co-sponsored the legislation.

Passing legislation will only be a beginning. “Once the College Transparency Act has passed,” McCann said, “there is a lot of work to do on figuring out how to analyze and present the information — and figuring out how to act on it.”

All this, ultimately, would help students like Gabhart. For her, data was the key to finding the college program that led to the career she wants. Now in her senior year at Purdue University, she serves as a process improvement intern at Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield. She will graduate into a full-time position as a change management advisor, a role with a salary that measures up to the outcomes she saw when she chose her course of study, she said.

Gabhart hopes that the CTA will pass, so that all students have access to the information she found through Purdue. “I believe that it will help people who want to go to college to make more informed decisions,” she said. “It will save them time and save them money, and overall it will make it easier to go to college.”

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