Cash-strapped American families want to know whether college is worth the money. The answer? It depends.
It depends on what kind of institution you attend (most four-year degrees are worth more than two-year degrees), what you study (earnings vary dramatically by choice of major), and how much you pay to complete a degree (lower-priced public colleges may provide the most bang for the buck). And all of this may depend on which institution you attend.
If the people purchasing higher education knew the answers to these questions before enrolling, we’d have a true higher education market. But while the stakes of the college choice have never been higher, the market is as opaque as ever on measures of quality and value. What major is most likely to land me a job with a middle-class wage? How does the success of graduates from that program differ across institutions? The data needed to answer these questions—measures of postsecondary enrollment and labor market outcomes—do exist, but they are often locked away and kept separate from one another. This firewall stunts the market and keeps prospective students in the dark.
But there are signs that this curtain may soon be raised. Yesterday at AEI (and in a USA Today op-ed), Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) discussed a far-reaching, bipartisan proposal to collect new data on how college graduates fare in the labor market. The proposal, introduced in the Senate as the Student Right to Know Before You Go Act, would match up individual-level educational data with information on employment and earnings that is currently collected as part of the unemployment insurance program. The bill calls on states to match up these data, measure student outcomes, and make them publicly available. For the first time, prospective consumers would have access to information on post-graduation average annual earnings, rates of remediation and graduation, and average debt accumulated. This information would be available down to the program and institution level, enabling students to compare outcomes for a single major across multiple colleges, or vice versa.
The kicker? The federal government has already paid states to collect these data. On the education side, the feds have invested $500 million to create state longitudinal data systems, but most of this information is languishing in so-called “data warehouses.” On the labor market side, the federal government pays all of the administrative costs of running the joint federal-state unemployment compensation program.
Colleges and universities will object to these measures, claiming that they do more than prepare graduates for jobs and reverting to tried and true privacy arguments. But transparency is on the march in higher education, with a bipartisan pair of senators leading the way.