Legislators in Ohio want to cut through the smoke and mirrors of the costs and benefits of a college degree. Sponsored by Rep. Adam Mathews, his bill proposes that state institutions publish student costs and recent graduates’ income data and forecast future loan payments. The bill heads to the Senate after passing 88-1. The bill’s co-sponsor believes it will create a “new level of transparency” in higher education.
However, one member of Ohio’s American Association of University Professors chapter referred to quantifying students’ future earnings potential as “problematic,” according to the Dayton Daily News. The University of Cincinnati professor testified that he supports greater financial transparency, but his concerns do hearken back to the turbulence many proponents of greater cost transparency in higher education have faced.
Why are sweeping measures for transparency challenging to gain support for?
Data submitted by colleges is rarely strong enough to help parents and students make effective decisions. When former President Donald Trump called for similar initiatives to make higher education more transparent, many of the data colleges posted were found to be misleading or inaccurate. College Scorecard cannot track current student data and must rely on information from student loan borrowers due to a 2008 Congressional decision. Aside from being the partial truth, colleges’ self-submitted data is not usually refined for the average parent or student and often becomes too technical to use appropriately.
“The information we need to provide has to be accurate, has to be verifiable, has to be comparable. It has to be visible to students, and it has to be usable,” said Debbie Cochrane, executive vice president of the Institute for College Access & Success, according to The Hechinger Report. “Misleading information is not helpful. Perfectly valid information that can’t be found is also not helpful.”
Aside from the college information being impractical, some colleges have a track record of submitting bad information. Columbia and Temple University have been caught submitting erroneous data to U.S. News and World Report to pad their rankings.
Lack of use
Initiatives that do try to track critical measures for prospective students don’t seem to gain much traffic. One report in 2016 found that College Scorecard underperformed among users. Similarly, two state-driven initiatives have also achieved meek results. One partnership between the University of Texas and the U.S. Census Bureau to provide better earnings data did not gain popularity two years after its launch. And Virginia’s wide-ranging database is left mostly unused.
“I think some fraction of students use the data,” said Tod Massa, policy analytics director at the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, according to The Hechinger Report. But “how many high school students are actually going to think to go to a state agency website to research colleges and universities?”
How have recent bills similar to Ohio’s fared?
At the federal level, three U.S. Senators are reviving the College Transparency Act after it stalled out last year. If approved, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) would be responsible for securing student data and generating postgraduation outcomes reports with the help of federal agencies. Creating a user-friendly website that parents and students can easily navigate is also top of mind. Additionally, the College Transparency Act would lift the 2008 Congress ban that hindered College Scorecard’s data accuracy.
At the state level, the Colorado General Assembly has recently passed a bill appropriating $3 million to the department of higher education to create a public-facing data system that allows prospective students to compare and contrast “postsecondary success measures and workforce success measures” among different institutions. Another eight states have enacted some form of collection and distribution of college data, according to The Hechinger Report. Among them are Arkansas, Arizona, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia.
However, one proposed bill in New York stalled out last year and has yet to be reintroduced.