Up for Vote #6: HELP for Education Consumers

This is the sixth blog post in the Up for Vote series focused on Congressional action to reauthorize the framework legislation for federal education policy. Our recommendations are based on AIR’s research. Here we focus on issues affecting the Higher Education Act (HEA).

If we’re lucky, the Higher Education Act will get reauthorized this year. The close working relationship between Lamar Alexander, the Chairman of the Senate Health Education and Pensions (HELP) Committee, and Patty Murray, the Ranking Member, seems to have created a dynamic conducive to producing a bill. Never mind that the current HEA expired in 2013—by today’s standards, a two-year wait is progress, since the last reauthorization in 2008 was five years late.

Several themes are percolating in the HELP committee. One is holding colleges and universities accountable for the success of students pursuing postsecondary education, especially those who benefit from the huge investments taxpayers make in them through federal grants and loans (about $150 billion per year).

Two basic paths are open to the HELP Committee as it considers how to increase accountability. On one hand, the Committee can travel farther down the path of accountability through regulation. While some regulation is clearly needed, in the extreme, emphasizing regulation breeds the kind of contention evident in the continuing debate over “gainful employment” (judging programs run by proprietary institutions based on student earnings relative to student debt) or the quest for tying college ratings to Title IV funding levels. Chairman Alexander doesn’t seem particularly interested in following that course.

Instead, his approach is more studied. Trying to incorporate best practices in the reauthorization, the HELP committee issued a white paper and held a hearing (at which I testified) on how to provide better consumer information. Less heavy-handed than regulation, ramping up the volume and flow of consumer information would boost accountability by educating students and their families on the payoffs of particular schools and degrees or certificates and then letting them decide which are delivering high-quality postsecondary education at a reasonable price.

If it takes this consumer information path, Congress needs to pick its data shots so consumers don’t get overwhelmed or confused. Focusing on five key questions about where to enroll and what to study would help keep the information digestible and manageable:

  • Will I get in? (Selectivity)
  • Will I get out? (Graduation rates)
  • How long will it take? (Time to complete)
  • How much will I pay? (Net price)
  • How much will I make? (Post completion earnings)

Answering each of these questions presents challenges, but none are insurmountable. The states and the federal government already collect many related indicators. But we can and should do more while also protecting the privacy of these data and minimizing the administrative burden on states and colleges.

Of course, real thought about what kind of measures are most relevant needs to be expended before the federal government throws its formidable resources behind developing the best detailed reliable measures for answering these questions.

First and perhaps most important, while everyone loves league tables that rank campuses against one another—witness the perennial popularity of US News and World Report’s school rankings—postsecondary student outcomes can vary more by program of study than by institution. As a result, top ten lists and the like seldom tell the whole story. If what higher-ed students study often matters more than where they study it, then consumers need information on every program offered by a college or university. Yet, this is not as hard as it sounds—check out College Measures for examples.

Another challenge is getting whatever we decide is the right information into the hands of consumers in a format that is useful, usable, and used. Although few would question the federal government’s unique capacity to gather data, its capacity to disseminate data in a way that works best for consumers is limited.

A step forward would be for the federal government to gather and release its consumer data to the world at large. Taking pains to protect student data (which is manageable since the data needed is on programs, not individual students), let the media, private companies, not-for-profit organizations, entrepreneurs, and computer wizards loose to figure out how best to turn these data into information that students can use to make better decisions about investing their time and money in postsecondary education. Once these new applications hit the street, consumers can use one or more of them, balancing the disparate information and rating schemes of each. If consumers don’t like one scheme, they can buy another app. And if they shift from poor performing schools to better ones or complain to campus administrators about poor performance, pressure on low performers to improve will mount.

With the number of students graduating from high school declining throughout the rest of this decade, campuses have no choice but to compete for a dwindling pool. Schools whose poor performance gets exposed by these consumer information sites will face even more pressure to improve or close their doors. That’s accountability!

Mark Schneider is a vice president and an Institute Fellow at AIR. Prior to joining AIR, Dr. Schneider served as Commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics from 2005-2008. Dr. Schneider is also a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and Distinguished Professor Emeritus of political science at the State University of New York, Stony Brook.