The College Data We Need

In 2013 President Barack Obama proposed a college rating system. The idea was that he would measure colleges based on things like graduation rates, student loan debt, graduate earnings, and the enrollment of poor students to provide potential students with a clear idea about college outcomes and encourage better behavior from schools. According to a New York Times article from the time, the president introduced,

A plan to rate colleges before the 2015 school year based on measures like tuition, graduation rates, debt and earnings of graduates, and the percentage of lower-income students who attend. The ratings would compare colleges against their peer institutions. If the plan can win Congressional approval, the idea is to base federal financial aid to students attending the colleges partly on those rankings.

Mr. Obama hopes that starting in 2018, the ratings would be tied to financial aid, so that students at highly rated colleges might get larger federal grants and more affordable loans. But that would require new legislation.

The idea was that eventually colleges would be rewarded or punished in terms of federal financial aid based on how well they did educating poor students and helping them to get reasonably good jobs when they graduated.

This policy would not, it turned out, go down as one of of the president’s great political success stories. He was beaten back by a coalition of powerful academic forces, including liberal arts colleges and vocational schools, who argued that it was unfair to reward and punish colleges for such things. Wasn’t college about learning, not the paycheck accrued?

He was forced to retreat. According to this Associated Press piece he scaled the whole thing back:

Instead, the new tool will allow prospective students to decide which factors are important to them, then draw their own conclusions from the statistics. But officials couldn’t point to any new statistics the tool will offer that aren’t already available through existing government websites.

Well it turns out the Associated Press spoke too soon. Obama administration might not have been able to give the country a national rating system. But it’s given us something pretty close. This Saturday the Department of Education released some new data on college performance. The Department’s “College Scorecard” has been designed to provide the public with comprehensive data on students’ outcomes at specific colleges, including former students’ earnings, former students’ debt, and borrowers’ repayment rates.

The Obama administration, to the great surprise of many education pundits, has managed to do this with existing federal data. By combining data from the National Center for Education Statistics, the National Student Loan Data System, and the Internal Revenue Service, it has managed to give us, while not a rating system, something pretty interesting: real, comparable information about college outcomes.

We have now have, from all institutions, graduation rates, median income by six and ten years from the start of freshman year, and information about student loan repayment rates.

This is not everything, of course. We still might like to know statistics about graduate school enrolment or what professions people picked. But this is pretty good.

Here at the Monthly we’ve long been supportive of a similar measurement tool.

It appeared very similar to the standard we’d been using at this magazine since 2005, which assesses colleges based on their education of low income students and their service to the United States.

The department has also released a list, similar to the Monthly’s annual Bang-for-the-Buck rankings, that take look at which colleges do a good job graduating a high percentage of students with Pell grants and helping them to get good jobs.

The department has a similar category, its Engines of Opportunity schools. These are its top schools based on the earnings of Pell students, the completion rates of Pell students, and the net price paid by lower-income students. The top 4-year colleges on this list include Aurora University, Georgia Regents University, Hamline University, Elizabeth City State University, SUNY Albany, the University of California, Irvine, and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

The politics of this were a little complicated. One might think that collecting this sort of information is unlawful. It actually isn’t.

For years political opponents of the president, both the GOP and professed progressives in the academic community, objected that collecting this information, and comparing colleges by earning outcomes, was both unfair and illegal. The administration can argue, quite convincingly, that it has every right to collect, interpret, and disseminate such information. The federal government has already had this data available for years. It didn’t need to collect any new information. It was just a matter of linking the existing information together in a way that mattered. It was very hard to get this done, but it wasn’t impossible.

The department has the ability, legally, to use such information to measure programmatic effectiveness. And since a majority of students in America receive some form of federal financial aid, this data now includes almost every student, and over 7,500 institutions that participate in federal financial aid programs.

Liberal arts colleges argued, for years, that it wasn’t fair to compare colleges on their students’ earnings incomes because that wasn’t, after all, the purpose of college. Well, of course not. But getting a good salary is the major reason students cite for why they want to go to college. And certainly the amount students and parents pay, and the expectations they have for professional jobs that come after college, mean that eventual salary should be a major thing to consider here,

The department also addressed the initial salary objection by looking at colleges in terms of the portion of graduates who made more than $25,000 a year. Colleges aren’t punished here for producing teachers or artists; they’re just rewarded for producing people with the ability of supporting themselves economically. Providing this information is a very positive development for American students.

It is not, of course, an entirely welcome change for many institutions however. Poorly performing schools, those that graduate a low percentage of their students or those where students don’t earn very much (for-profits, some community colleges, and struggling liberal arts schools) are likely to react to this quite negatively. Can they prevent the department from making this data available to American citizens?

Well, they can try. Even if these schools enroll poor students, many of them are quite powerful institutions, with important allies in Congress. Some members of Congress might try to use budget power to shut down the department’s website. Policymakers opposed to revealing more data about college outcomes can certainly make things very difficult for the Obama administration. Officials might have to testify before Congress. Politicians might complain about the administration’s “overreach” on the Sunday morning talk shows.

But politicians from both parties are now starting to understand that American colleges are getting too expensive and many aren’t living up to their promises. Both of the major candidates for the Democratic nomination for the presidency, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, have pitched plans to make college cheaper. Scott Walker has spent the last several years as governor of Wisconsin trying to get more information out about his state’s public university system. Even Marco Rubio seems to have basically progressive concerns about the cost of American higher education, even if he’s unwilling to admit President Obama has spent the last six years instituting the very reforms the junior United States Senator from Florida wants.

What’s more, this information is already out there. Americans now have access to real data about the effectiveness of America’s academic institutions. Can we really put this back in the box?

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer