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Data Can Help Students Maximize Return on Their College Investment

Information that could lead to better choices about postsecondary programs exists. So why aren't we using it?

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When you buy a car, you want to know it will get you where you’re going. Before you invest in a certain model, you check its record. How does it do in crash tests? Does it have a history of breaking down? Are other owners glad they bought it?

Students choosing between college programs can’t do the same kind of homework. Much of the detailed data we demand when we buy a car isn’t available for postsecondary education — data such as how many students find jobs in the fields they studied, what they earn, how much debt they accumulate, and how quickly they repay it — yet choosing a college is a much more important financial decision.

The most promising solution to filling in the gaps, according to data advocates, is the College Transparency Act, which would create a secure, comprehensive national data network with information on college costs, graduation rates, and student career paths — and make this data publicly available. The bill, which will be discussed in Congress this year, has broad support from both Republicans and Democrats in the House and the Senate in part because it includes precautions to protect privacy and secure student data.

“The College Transparency Act contains a number of really strong privacy provisions so that we don’t have to choose between protecting student privacy and giving them the information they deserve to know,” says Mamie Voight, vice president of policy research at the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP), a nonprofit research and policy organization that promotes college access and success. “It includes things like penalties for misuse; it limits the information that’s obtained, so the most sensitive data isn’t collected; and it includes provisions around maintaining modern standards in data security.”

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of students graduate within 8 years of starting a college program

One statistic that is available reveals that most students don’t get where they want to go: They never earn their degree. Federal data on college completion rates shows that fewer than half of students who start a program graduate within eight years. Given the size of their investment, students deserve at least as much information as car buyers, argues Voight.

“Imagine assisting a loved one trying to decide between two colleges. She asks questions like: ‘Do part-time, black students graduate?’ ‘What types of schools do students transfer to?’ ‘How do their graduates fare in the workforce?’ ” Voight told a Senate committee last year. “Your loved one won’t be able to answer those questions because the available data is incomplete.”

Arnold Ventures supports IHEP’s research and advocacy as part of its effort to increase the return on investment for college students, especially low-income students and students of color. In order for students to choose the best path forward, they need access to accurate, high-quality data, says Chase Sackett, the policy and advocacy manager for Arnold Ventures’ higher education portfolio.

“This is a necessary precondition to improve student outcomes. It won’t magically fix [the completion crisis], but it’s a critical step,” Sackett says.

Good Data; Better Jobs

A federal student-level data network on postsecondary program outcomes would give students the information they need to blaze a trail to a successful career.

Landing a good job isn’t the only benefit of a college education, but for many students, it’s the most important one. In survey after survey, students say that the main reason they enroll in higher education of any kind — from certificate programs to four-year degrees — is to improve their employment prospects.

A federal student-level data network on higher-education outcomes, like the one that would be authorized if the College Transparency Act passes, would help students identify career paths across a range of programs that would help them pay off student loan debt and achieve financial security, says Bryan Wilson, director of the Workforce Data Quality Campaign at the National Skills Coalition, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that promotes workforce development. Giving students better access to outcomes information — for programs as well as institutions — would provide a foothold to students hoping to climb to a higher income level.

“With the CTA, there would be a website reporting at the program level: the welding program and the registered nurse program, for example, and it would break down the information by major subpopulations: race, ethnicity, gender, veteran status, etcetera,” he explains. “So you could look up the results of the RN program, and you could also ask, are they serving African-American students well?”

By taking some of the mystery out of the path toward a high-paying career, a federal student-level data network would further level the playing field for low-income students, who may not have as much access to this kind of information from college counselors or their own personal connections.

Data showing what kinds of jobs program graduates get, and how much they earn, could also benefit employers and industries by making students aware of careers they might never have thought of, Wilson says.

“A lot of employers have trouble hiring people for certain fields. A lot of manufacturing jobs, for example, go unfilled in part because people aren’t aware that there are good-paying jobs available, or how to get them,” he says. “This would help get the word out that these jobs are out here — and these programs will help you get them.”

Scattered data

The data needed to answer questions about student success already exists but is scattered among various agencies and institutions: the Department of Education for data on student loan repayment; the Treasury Department for earnings information; and schools themselves for graduation rates.

“We can’t connect the dots to find out how these programs are serving certain students, and that’s because the Department of Education isn’t allowed to connect all the information these places have already collected,” says Amy Laitinen, director for higher education at New America, a think tank collaborating with IHEP to promote educational transparency.

And until recently, publicly available federal postsecondary data only included full-time students who’d never enrolled in a college program before, ignoring the more than half of the higher ed population made up of students who attend school part time or who transfer from one institution to another.

In 2017, the federal government began including those students in its records, but the data is still too scattered to be of much help. The Department of Education maintains an online database, the College Scorecard, that allows students to compare institutions, but its benefits have limits, according to Bryan Wilson, director of the Workforce Data Quality Campaign at the National Skills Coalition, another organization Arnold Ventures supports.

Students are hungry for this information. They’re really stretching themselves to pay for college, and they want to know they’re making the right choice.

“The College Scorecard only has information on institutions as a whole. But particularly when it comes to employment outcomes, what people major in matters more than the institution where they got their credential,” Wilson says. “And it’s only based on students who are receiving Title IV federal financial aid, such as Pell Grants. While that’s a majority — 70 percent of college students — it varies a lot from institution to institution. It’s a much smaller percentage at community colleges and other two-year institutions.”

And the College Scorecard doesn’t break down student outcomes by student characteristic, such as by race, veteran status, or enrollment level (part-time vs. full-time). Without this level of detail, students can’t tell how well a program has served other students like them — which makes it hard to tell if it’s the right fit.

“The students whom higher ed fails the most are also the most at risk,” says Laitinen. “There’s all this hand-wringing about ‘Is higher education worth it?’ And the short answer is: It is worth it, on average. But the individual answer — ‘Is it worth it for me?’ — is very different for different students depending on where they go.”

‘Hungry for information’

While the College Transparency Act aims to make data more accessible, there’s no guarantee it will change the way students choose between college programs. In the healthcare industry, a major initiative to make pricing more transparent didn’t ultimately change the way patients picked their treatment providers — or the costs they paid as a result. But surveys and focus groups reveal that prospective college students are eager to get their hands on more data to inform what, to many of them, is the most significant decision they’ve ever had to make.

Mamie Voight testified before a Senate committee last year about the need for data in higher education. (U.S. Senate photo)

“Students are hungry for this information,” says Voight. “They’re really stretching themselves to pay for college, and they want to know they’re making the right choice.”

Anecdotally, at least, Voight said more data does seem to play an important role in how students choose a program. For example, one community college student was considering transferring to a four-year college and trying to decide between two different programs there. Luckily, her state happened to be one that collected information at the program level.

“She was able to find data on employment outcomes from those different programs, and she chose the one that was going to set her up to repay her loans more effectively,” Voight says.

Regardless of whether this information changes where students choose to go, they deserve access to it, she argues.

“They have a right to know what to expect from different institutions and programs. If it’s not even available, they certainly can’t use it,” she says. “Of course, data on its own, just posted on a website, won’t do much to change behavior. It also has to get into the hands of counselors, teachers, and parents to help them inform students and guide their choices.”