Removing the Veil of Ignorance?

Americans like to hear that politicians from the opposing parties are working together to solve problems. A good case in point is the “Student Right to Know Before You Go Act” sponsored by Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Marco Rubio (R-FL). Bipartisan cooperation on a matter that most Americans regard as important—making a good college decision—sounds like a sweet melody in this year of political cacophony.

Undoubtedly, both senators have good intentions—you can read an article they wrote here. The question is whether their bill will have good results. Legislation often fails to live up to its hype, but this bill might be an exception to that rule.

The bill (available in full and in Senator Wyden’s synopsis) is supposed to “support statewide individual-level integrated postsecondary education data systems.” In short, the authors believe that the current college data reporting system (the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System or IPEDS) is not adequate either for students and parents or for policy analysts.

As is common with bills, this one begins with several “findings” Congress has supposedly made. One is a misleading “finding” about the supposed million-dollar earnings premium that bachelor’s-degree holders get; another is an accurate one that many people who have “lower” educational levels earn more than people with bachelor’s degrees; and then we come to the critical one: “Employment and earnings projections of distinct degree and certificate programs and the cost of obtaining these credentials are not equal across institutions.”

That’s right, and it would do serious damage to the higher education bubble if people could see just how little good many college credentials do for students.

In particular, the bill is supposed to give students reliable information on:

  1. Post-graduation average annual earnings
  2. Rates of remedial enrollment, credit accumulation, and graduation
  3. Average cost of the program (before and after financial aid)
  4. The effects of remedial education and financial aid on credential attainment.

Let’s start with the easiest element of those four, cost.

College costs can be known and it makes just as much sense for students to hunt for the best bargain as it does for car shoppers. Students can already get cost data, though. I don’t think there are any colleges or universities that don’t have cost calculator features on their sites. (Here is the calculator for the University of Texas, for example.) There are also sites that make cost comparisons quick and easy because they have data on most colleges and universities, such as CollegeData.

With abundant information on college costs already available, it seems that the bill is reinventing the wheel.

How about the rates of remedial enrollment, credit accumulation, and graduation?

Having information on the extent to which a school enrolls students who need remedial coursework certainly is indicative. If a high percentage of the students admitted need remedial work, that shows a rather weak student body and (probably) correspondingly low academic rigor. But you can figure that out just by looking at the average SAT or ACT scores, information that’s already available.

Graduation rates are much less important than most people, including the sponsors of the bill, think. Wyden says that information will help students “know what their likelihood of completion is.” The problem with that way of looking at graduation is that it turns graduation rates into a matter of chance. If a college has an 18.3 percent graduation rate, that doesn’t mean that whether a student graduates is like having to roll a 6 on a die. You have an 18.3 percent chance of doing that. But if you earn the necessary number of credits at the college, you have a 100 percent “chance” of graduating.

Students already have access to graduation rate data (for example, here) but they might be making a mistake by paying attention to it. A school could have a relatively high graduation rate due to low academic standards.

For college costs and graduation rates, at least we have quantifiable data. When it comes to the “effects of remedial education and financial aid” we enter the realm of guesswork. If a student who needed remedial courses passes them and later graduates, does that prove that the courses were effective? Or does it show that the rest of the curriculum was easy enough that graduating was merely a matter of persistence?

Finally, and most important, the senators want students to be able to compare likely earnings after they graduate: How much am I apt earn if I take a business major at College A versus College B? A history major at University C versus University D? A women’s studies major at College E versus University F?

If that information could be compiled, it would be very useful. At present, colleges put a big smiley face on all their programs, making it seem that all their grads do well once they’re out in the labor market. We know that isn’t true, but there isn’t much hard evidence to prove it.

Senator Wyden says that the bill would allow the new data systems “to match individual level transcript data to post-graduation employment and earnings outcomes.” Apparently, that objective can be accomplished by having the Social Security Administration marry its universal data on what jobs people are doing and how much they are earning with college and university information on their graduates and majors.

Suppose that students and their parents could go to a site where they would find out that the 25 Behemoth University grads in the 2010 class who majored in, let’s say, communications, range in earnings from $40,000 to zero. If it were also possible to indicate how many have jobs in the communications field and how many are working in other fields (if they’re working at all), that would be better still.

Legislation often has unintended consequences that are harmful, but in this instance, the unintended consequences could be beneficial. Reliable data showing that degrees from certain schools and in certain majors are generally of little value in the market would cause many students to steer away from them. It would be as valuable to students thinking about college (including whether it’s a good idea at all) as it’s valuable to automobile shoppers to be able to find out which models are excellent and which ones give owners lots of trouble.

Information like that could prove fatal, by the way, to the academically dubious identity studies programs Bruce Bawer so ably dissected in his book The Victims’ Revolution.

I’m not sure that the senators understand what the full impact of their bill would be if it works. Yes, it would help students make more informed decisions about going to college, but often that informed decision would be to do something else. Many would see that they aren’t cut out for the sorts of high-stress college programs that can lead to good employment (such as engineering) and that the kinds of low-stress programs they could handle are apt to lead to mundane jobs.

If this bill ever comes up for hearings, I’d expect that spokesmen for the higher ed industry would try to derail it. The very last thing they want is for prospective students to make accurate cost-and-benefit calculations.