Senate Education Committee Releases Consumer Info-Focused White Paper

March 26, 2015

Bill DeBaun, Program Analyst

This week, Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), chairman of the Senate education committee, put out a call for the higher education community to weigh in on some topics that may make an appearance in the eventual reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA). The release of three white papers provides concepts and proposals around accreditation, risk sharing, and consumer information. They represent a plethora of potential policy options on which to comment. The third white paper, on consumer information, is notable because it considers a number approaches that NCAN has called for in the past.

Federal Postsecondary Data Transparency and Consumer Information Concepts and Proposals” is framed around data-related two goals for the HEA: ensuring both “public access to accurate, comparable data on institutions of higher education” and that “information is purposeful and consumer friendly to enable students and families to select the college or university that best fits their needs.” This is, frankly, music to our ears. NCAN has consistently called for emphasizing improving data for students and their families to choose where to attend. The chairman of the senate education committee putting proposals that do just this on the table is encouraging to say the least.

The white paper addresses a number of problems with the current postsecondary data environment. It notes that “some federally collected data may serve no purpose for policymakers or consumers,” which increases the reporting burden on colleges and universities without providing key information about the returns on taxpayers’ investments in higher education. Rather than creating “massive collections of unused data and unread disclosures,” the paper suggests that “policy should promote purposeful and accurate data for evaluating the efficacy of federal student aid programs and providing transparency to students and families on postsecondary options.”

Additionally, the paper notes that consumers are relying on search engines, rather than the many federal postsecondary data tools, to get their information about the higher education marketplace. “Currently, there are 13 separate federally maintained data portals or consumer tools scattered across different agency websites through which the public can find information on institutions or student trends in financial aid,” the report explains. “It is little wonder students are not frequenting them.”

One area where the white paper goes astray is in its discussion of net-price calculators and Pell graduation rates. In the example given, one institution had low traffic numbers on its net-price calculator; one school’s net-price calculator traffic figures should not be used inductively to suggest that net-price calculators are not useful resources. Indeed, too many IHEs are making these key pieces of data hard for students and families to find. More prominent placement, as well as continued education about why these metrics are key to matriculation decisions, would increase traffic. Net-price calculators and Pell graduation rates still very much deserve the support of both policy and the public.

The brief rightly acknowledges that “Americans enrolling in college are increasingly first generation and non-traditional students who may not have the support of family or friends to choose the right college” and cites research showing that, with better information, students can choose colleges that will help them attain better outcomes.

Among some of the solutions for consideration in the paper are trimming the federal data collection to focus specifically on “student financing, success, or safety;” studying the current usage of federal postsecondary data resources by policymakers and students (though, notably, not researchers); and even creating a student unit record system (SURS) at the Department of Education. This last suggestion is momentous. Although the current authorization of the HEA bans the development of a SURS, such a system could potentially decrease burden for institutions and provide answers to many of the questions that are unanswerable with currently available data.

NCAN will continue to monitor developments related to the HEA reauthorization and also submit comments (which are due by April 24) to the committee on this topic. 

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