House Majority Leader Eric Cantor delivered a high-profile policy address at AEI yesterday, laying out a GOP agenda for the next two years. The speech was ambitious, touching on everything from immigration to Medicare reform to job training.
We’re probably biased on this score, but we thought Cantor’s emphasis on education reform stood out the most. He assured the audience that House Republicans were prepared to “move heaven and earth” to improve the education system for the most vulnerable. His overarching message was familiar: policies should empower parents and students to make informed decisions about their own education. But he went beyond standard arguments about K-12 school choice to call for greater transparency in higher education:
“Suppose colleges provided prospective students with reliable information on the unemployment rate and potential earnings by major? What if parents had access to clear and understandable breakdowns between academic studies and amenities? Armed with this knowledge, families and students could make better decisions about where to go to school, and how to budget their tuition dollars. Students would actually have a better chance of graduating within four years and getting a job.”
The theme—equipping higher education consumers with the information they need to make sound investments—is one our work has touched on frequently (see here, here, and here). Republicans are fond of market-based solutions, but you can’t have a healthy market without the information it needs to work correctly. It’s a welcome sign to see a member of the Republican leadership take this issue on.
In his remarks, Cantor pointed to a proposal from Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) (co-sponsored by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL)) that calls on states to collect and report new information on student success to the federal government. The Student Right to Know Before You Go Act would replace the existing one, where institutions directly report data that is notoriously incomplete and unreliable. The proposed state-run data systems would be student-level, tracking key outcomes like rates of remedial enrollment, credit accumulation, and graduation for all students, and annual post-graduation earnings for different programs. Senators Wyden and Rubio discussed these ideas at AEI this past September.
Some states haven’t waited for federal encouragement and have taken matters into their own hands, linking up their postsecondary data systems with wage records from the unemployment insurance program, so that they can calculate average earnings and job placement rates for different colleges and majors. In Tennessee, for instance, prospective students can now learn that graduates with an associate’s degree in the health professions from Chattanooga State Technical and Community College can expect to earn $45,200 in their first year out of college; for business and marketing majors, the comparable figure is about $36,100.
There’s certainly more to a college education than increased earnings. But UCLA’s most recent annual survey of college freshmen found that 88 percent rated being “able to get a better job” as a very important reason for going to college, the most ever.
Not surprisingly, most higher education interests haven’t gotten the memo that this data would be useful. Cantor’s timing was especially auspicious, coming on the heels of the annual meeting of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU), one of the most vocal opponents of federal efforts to collect and publicize more data. According to Libby Nelson from Inside Higher Ed college presidents at Monday’s session on federal policy gave mixed reviews. While they applauded President Obama’s investments in financial aid (which pays their bills), “they criticized the administration and Congress for increasingly describing higher education as a consumer good, with students as consumers who should be picking colleges based on statistics, such as the average salary after graduation.”
Translation: keep the money coming, but don’t tell our potential customers what it is we provide in exchange for their time and money.
This is the kind of special interest nonsense that a bipartisan group of reform-minded leaders could push past, provided they don’t flinch in the face of the powerful, well-endowed higher education lobby. Transparency is about the interests of students and taxpayers, not the interests of colleges. As Majority Leader Cantor told the audience today, “We owe it to them.”