Can Student Outcome Data Make College Selection More Transparent?

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Strengthening educational access for minorities, women, and veterans are key initiatives behind the College Transparency Act of 2019 of which Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi is a strong supporter. In this month’s interview, Andrew Hibel and Representative Krishnamoorthi discuss his passion for increasing accessibility and for colleges and universities to be more accountable, and his work to build a bipartisan coalition of support for higher education.

Andrew Hibel, HigherEdJobs: Representative Krishnamoorthi, please explain the goal of the College Transparency Act of 2019 bill and the rationale on why it should be supported.

Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi: Thank you for the question, Andrew. Under current law, there is a misguided provision that makes it illegal for the federal government to collect accurate data on student outcomes, such as how students perform academically and economically based on which specific program and specific institution they pursue. This harmful prohibition, known as the “student unit record ban,” prevents prospective students and their families from making informed decisions about which programs will best fit their interests and career ambitions. More specifically, students don’t have access to information such as: which program is more likely to lead to positive post-graduation employment, higher earnings, or lower student loan debt? Simply put, this lack of data has a number of negative economic and societal consequences for students, educators, businesses, and our overall economy.

The College Transparency Act can be broken down into two main provisions. First, it overturns the harmful student unit record ban. Second, it establishes a privacy-protected system to collect and report student outcome data so that college applicants can better understand the return on their investment. This legislation has robust support because it strengthens educational access for minorities, women, and veterans, bolsters the American workforce and decreases the “skills gap,” and helps educational institutions take concrete steps to improve student success.

Hibel: The Higher Education Act has authorized the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) through Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) to collect a vast amount of information about colleges and universities; Why hasn’t the outcome data also been recorded as part of the IPEDS process?

Krishnamoorthi: The IPEDS system does include some outcome data, such as graduation and retention rates, but it does not include important workforce-specific outcomes data such as employment metrics or future earnings potential. There are a few issues at hand. First, with the student unit record ban in place, the Department of Education is unable to enter into a data-sharing agreement with other key federal agencies, such as the Treasury Department, to securely ascertain relevant economic and employment-based data. Second, because of the student unit record ban under current law, the IPEDS system is prohibited from collecting student-level data. Barring a few program-level indicators such as the number of graduates and certain pricing data, IPEDS, reports institutional-level data. This data is better than nothing but offers limited value to prospective students who want specific information with regards to their trajectory and success. The College Transparency Act addresses both of these issues by authorizing the collection of disaggregated student-level data and by creating privacy-protected data-sharing agreements between federal agencies.

Hibel: Why shouldn’t students have privacy concerns about the aggregation of their educational outcome data?

Krishnamoorthy: Student privacy is extremely important, which is why there are strong security standards and data governance protocols in our legislation to protect student privacy. Just to name a few, the College Transparency Act does not allow the collection of sensitive data and prohibits the publicly available data from including any personally identifiable data. Further, the bill establishes a Postsecondary Student Data System Advisory Committee to determine the exact data elements of this system and requires the Department of Education Chief Privacy Officers and Chief Security Officers to be included in this committee. Further, the legislation prescribes criminal penalties for unlawful willful disclosure of privacy-protected personal information.

Hibel: A federally guaranteed student loan is as essential to a student’s post-secondary education as a Rhetoric 101 class, but it also puts our government, and thus all of us taxpayers as stakeholders in the educational outcomes of students. How does this bill rebuild the trust between students, schools, and taxpayers that post-secondary education is worthy of our individual and collective investment?

Krishnamoorthi: Great question, and great point! The federal government invests significantly in American higher education, and in turn, the strength of our education system plays an integral role in the health of our workforce and economy. We all benefit when students pursue educational pathways that match their interests and prepare them for good-paying, in-demand jobs. That’s why we need a federal, comprehensive system that produces easily understandable student outcome data for public consideration.

Hibel: Student loan debt is the second-largest type of debt, but unlike other types of debt it has not been traditionally discharged by bankruptcy. How is this information currently available and will your bill help make distressed loan information available in a transparent way so students can know how colleges are helping students make responsible choices?

Krishnamoorthi: To date, over 45 million Americans owe more than $1.6 trillion in national student loan debt. This is over $500 billion more than US credit card debt, and leads to numerous adverse consequences for small businesses, families, and the overall economy. This is a big, big problem.

The “student debt” indicator is a unique one. Because of the student unit record ban, families have only been able to see the aggregate student loan debt at the institutional level. In other words, the average student loan debt based on all student loan recipients from a college or university. However, this year the Department of Education expanded its “College Scorecard” tool to illustrate the student loan debt an individual is likely to take on to study a particular subject at a particular school. While this was a big step in the right direction, the problem is that the College Scorecard only collects information on federal Title IV financial aid recipients, which equals 60% of students. In other words, the most useful data we have on average student loan debt is extremely flawed — it leaves out 40% of the student population! With the College Transparency Act, individuals will be able to learn the average student loan debt at the programmatic level and will also be able to customize this data based on factors such as gender, race, ethnicity, and veterans’ status. Further, individuals will be able to compare and contrast this information between differing programs and institutions, which will serve to both inform prospective students and hold institutions accountable. Importantly, this system will incorporate sound data that captures the entire student population.

Hibel: Congressman, last year you had a bi-partisan bill, the Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act, passed into law. This act helps educate students in trade and vocational post-secondary education. What do you think were the keys to its success and bi-partisan support? And do you feel the same keys to success can lead the College Transparency Act of 2019 into law?

Krishnamoorthi: In many ways, I am trying to apply the same keys to success. The Strengthening CTE for the 21st Century Act, reformed and reauthorized the American career and technical education system for the first time in 12 years. I am convinced we were able to get this bill passed last Congress because we built a robust, diverse, and bipartisan coalition of support. Much like CTE, CTA has the support of over 200 advocacy organizations (including education, youth, business, civil rights, and veterans’ groups), and more than 140 bipartisan cosponsors between the two chambers of Congress. To get things done around here, you have to build a strong grassroots coalition, and you have to outwork others who are advocating for different issues. I am hopeful that in applying this same strategy, we will soon get CTA across the finish line.

Hibel: Representative Krishnamoorthi, you have taken an oath to serve the people and you advocate for access to higher education as well, but what personal inspiration is behind the push for colleges and universities to be more responsible to the higher education consumer?

Krishnamoorthi: One thing is clear: a four-year college degree may not be for everyone, but to build a career in the 21st century economy, a postsecondary education or credential has to be. After meeting with business owners, working families, and educators across my district, it is evident that more needs to be done to help young Americans pursue educational pathways that actually prepare them for in-demand jobs and family-sustaining careers. I am thrilled to champion this issue in Congress, and I look forward to continuing to advocate for greater transparency and accountability in our higher education system.

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