Bringing a Bit of Transparency to the College Decision

Over at the College Guide, Daniel Luzer has a rundown of the bill Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) introduced on Thursday to address the black hole of non-information prospective college students wander into, often leading to tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt.

The basics:

Currently students make decisions about college based largely on parents’ income and their own comfort assuming debt. But figuring out how much debt is appropriate is sort of mystery, a mystery that can lead to horrible mistakes.

Students know that college is expensive, but they don’t know what they’ll actually earn later.

The bill introduced by Wyden could provide students with a little guidance. The Student Right to Know Before You Go Act will require academic institutions to report to the U.S. Department of Education information about their:

1.Post-graduation average annual earnings;

2.Rates of remedial enrollment, credit accumulation, and graduation;

3.Average cost (both before and after financial aid) of the program and average debt accumulated;

Obviously a step forward, but unless I’m missing something, the bill won’t require colleges to release the unemployment rate of each class of graduates. This certainly seems like it would be valuable information to have, even if it varies hugely by major. What’s the argument for releasing information about average earnings but not unemployment?

But taking the longer view, a bill like this could lead to the collection of gigabytes of incredibly useful information. Paul Glastris made this point a couple years ago:

Boosted by federal stimulus funds, states are now investing hundreds of millions of dollars in data systems that will allow them to analyze what happens to students after they graduate. Which universities are helping students land good, well-paying positions in their field? Which colleges are sending students into socially beneficial jobs like teaching and military service? Soon—in a matter of years, not decades—we will know.

Add to that the vast amount of cheap-and-becoming-cheaper information made possible by the Internet—inexpensive student and alumni surveys, new financial data, detailed feedback from employers; the list goes on—and it’s clear we’re entering a time of higher education information abundance. Presuming the higher education establishment doesn’t cut off the flow of that information, we can use it to give consumers and politicians what they’ve never had before: a true picture of college quality in all its dimensions and forms.

That, in turn, will make possible the crucial element the higher education market is missing: a measure of value, quality divided by price. Right now there’s no data to form the numerator of that equation, so people just assume that price and value are one and the same. Thus, they think that low-cost community colleges are for losers who couldn’t get in elsewhere, middling public universities are fine if you don’t mind being stuck in the hinterlands, and the most elite, wealthy, expensive institutions are where every student should want to go and what every college should want to be. And the only way to enter the elite ranks if you’re a college is to grab more money from anywhere you can—from the government, from alumni, and, most of all, from students.

What it comes down to is that the more we can make choosing a college like choosing a new TV, the better. If half the units of Sony’s newest flat-screen fried themselves to early deaths within six months of being plugged in, consumers would quickly find out about it. For a wide variety of political and institutional reasons, economically vulnerable young people are making a much more important decision without a fraction of the information anyone can arm themselves with before walking into a Best Buy.

Jesse Singal

Jesse Singal is a former opinion writer for The Boston Globe and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. He is currently a master's student at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Policy. Follow him on Twitter at @jessesingal.