NCAN Submits Comments on Senate Consumer Info Paper

April 24, 2015

Bill DeBaun, Program Analyst

Last month Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee released three white papers providing concepts and proposals around accreditation, risk sharing, and consumer information and soliciting comments from the higher education field.

On Friday, April 24, NCAN submitted comments responding to the proposals advanced in the third white paper. These comments praised the white paper's emphasis on student and consumer information and underscored the need for high quality, accessible, and comprehensible data that consumers can use to select an institution that gives them the best chance of obtaining a postsecondary degree. 

The text of those comments is below.

The Honorable Lamar Alexander
Chairman
Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee
United States Senate
Washington, D.C. 20510

April 24, 2015

Dear Senator Alexander,

The National College Access Network (NCAN) is grateful for the opportunity to comment on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) white paper on federal postsecondary data transparency and consumer information. As the national voice for more than 350 college access and success programs serving over two million students across the country, NCAN is keenly aware of the information deficits faced by low-income, first-generation students, many of them students of color, in their efforts to attain first a postsecondary education and, eventually, a better life. Many of the students served by NCAN members come from families and communities where college-going is not the norm. A lack of information about navigating the college-choosing and college-going processes is a significant barrier that keeps many of these students from enrolling in and completing a postsecondary program. NCAN applauds the white paper’s focus on improving data availability and usability for students and consumers as a key step to removing this barrier and improving postsecondary access.

There has been a growing conversation within the higher education data community around which data are needed, for whom, and for what purposes. We support the creation of data-related efforts that will help students make choices that support their success. As this conversation has evolved, much time has been spent on data availability and usability for postsecondary institutions and researchers as well as policymakers at the state and federal levels. But not enough time has been spent discussing the first, and to us most important, goal of higher education data: assisting students with finding the institutions that will give them the best chance of academic, financial, personal, and professional success.

College choice matters. Institutions have wide-ranging outcomes for the same profile of student, as evidenced in the Education Trust’s College Results Online tool. That is, colleges with similar resources, enrollments regarding academic achievement, and/or racial composition could have very different outcomes or graduation rates, sometimes by as much as 20 percentage points. Today’s students are in need of the right information to help them make decisions about attending a school that best matches their academic qualifications and provides the best environment to support ultimate completion. Students who fail to do so are less likely to graduate.

College students, only half of whom are first-time, full time and less than 20 percent of whom are students who are first-time, full-time students living on campus, need to be able to answer this most important question: Where will a student like me succeed? Federal postsecondary data should clearly and simply communicate to students and their families whether an institution is accessible, affordable, and gives the student a legitimate chance of earning a degree. Right now the federal postsecondary data system provides inadequate answers to some of these questions and no answers at all to others.

One area in which federal postsecondary data currently falls short is in understanding the outcomes of Pell Grant recipients. Despite the federal government’s investment in Pell Grants, we have no widely available institution-specific information about the outcomes of these grant recipients. A first step to address this was the addition of the Pell Grant status flag in the National Student Loan Database System (NSLDS). While it will take until 2017 for four-year graduation rates and through 2019 for six-year rates, it is a step in the right direction. Alternatively, Congress could make the data instantly available by requiring institutions to report their Pell Grant recipient graduation rates to the U.S. Department of Education. Because colleges are already required to disclose this information to students, it does not add additional burden. Rather than focus on data points buried deep within the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) that are used by institutional policymakers or researchers, more attention should be paid to making measures like Pell Grant recipient graduation rates more readily available; these data can inform consumer behavior and college choice and in turn spur higher completion rates.

There is one area of this white paper where we would like to urge caution. Although “federally mandated consumer tools and disclosures” like net-price calculators and Pell recipient graduation rates may currently be underutilized by consumers, we attribute this to the concerning lack of awareness of these resources, which are placed too often in obscure locations on institutions’ websites. There should be an honest commitment to making these more prominently accessible before taking any action or making any judgment on their effectiveness.

Students need accurate information that they can use to compare schools based on the characteristics most important to them. Ensuring that postsecondary data is both accessible and comprehensible to consumers is important, and the white paper demonstrates a commitment to that aim. NCAN looks forward to continuing this broad conversation about postsecondary education data as Congress moves closer to reauthorizing the Higher Education Act. We appreciate this opportunity to comment today. Thank you again for having this important conversation about the need for a consumer focus in our federal postsecondary data systems. We appreciate the opportunity to share comments and know that students will be its ultimate beneficiaries.

Sincerely,

Kim Cook
Executive Director
National College Access Network





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