Higher education has gotten a lot of attention during the early stages of the 2016 presidential campaign. All three major candidates for the Democratic nomination – former New York Senator Hillary Clinton, former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders – have proposed different plans to reduce or eliminate student loan debt at public colleges.
However, the price tags of these plans (at least US$350 billion over 10 years for Clinton’s proposal) will make free college highly unlikely. Republicans, including leading presidential candidates, have already made their opposition quite clear.
But student loan debt is unlikely to go away anytime soon. What is important for now is that students and their families get better information about tuition costs and college outcomes so they can make more informed decisions, especially as the investments are so large.
What colleges will reveal
Although colleges are required to submit data on hundreds of items to the federal government each year, only a few measures that are currently available are important to most students and their families:
First, colleges must report graduation rates for first-time, full-time students. This does a good job reflecting the outcomes at selective colleges, where most students go full-time.
Colleges must also report net prices (the cost of attendance less all grant aid received) by different family income brackets. The cost of attendance (defined as tuition and fees, room and board, books and supplies, and other living expenses such as transportation and laundry) and the resulting net price are important measures of affordability.
Because financial aid packages can vary across colleges with similar sticker prices, net prices are important to give students an idea of what they might expect to pay.
Colleges that offer their students federal loans must report the percentage of students who defaulted on their loans within three years of leaving college. This measure reflects whether students are able to make enough money to repay their loans. Colleges must also report average student loan debt burdens, so students can see what their future payments might look like.
In addition, vocationally oriented programs must report debt and earnings metrics under new federal “gainful employment” regulations. This provides students in technical fields a clear idea of what they might expect to make.
The Obama administration has promised that additional information on student outcomes will be made available “later this summer”, although they have not said what will be made available.
What don’t we know?
Despite the availability of information on some key outcomes, more can still be done to help students make wise decisions about which college to attend.
Below are some example of outcomes that would be helpful for students and their families to know about.
Although enormous gaps in college completion rates exist by family income, students and their families cannot currently access data on the graduation rates of low-income students receiving federal Pell Grants. (The federal government is purchasing data from the National Student Clearinghouse to fix this going forward.)
Colleges are required to report the percentage of minority students and the percentage of students receiving Pell Grants, but nothing is known about the percentage of first-generation students.
This is of particular interest given the key policy goal of improving access to American higher education; without this information, it is harder to tell which colleges are engines of social mobility.
How could we know more?
The data needed to answer many of the questions above are already held by the federal government, but in multiple databases that are not allowed to communicate with each other.
The greatest barrier to better information from the federal government is due to a provision included in the 2008 reauthorization of the Higher Education Act which banned the federal government from creating a “student unit record” data system that would link financial aid, enrollment and employment outcomes for students receiving federal financial aid dollars. This ban was put in place in part due to concerns over data privacy, and in part due to an intense lobbying effort from private nonprofit colleges.
States, in contrast, are allowed to have unit record data systems, and a few of them make detailed information available to anyone at the click of a mouse.
For example, Virginia makes a host of student loan debt information available in a series of convenient tables and graphics.
Senator Rubio has teamed with Democratic Senators Ron Wyden of Oregon and Mark Warner of Virginia to introduce legislation overturning the ban on unit record data, although no action has yet been taken in Congress.
A bipartisan push to make more information available to students and their families has the potential to help students make better decisions.
But getting data is only one part of the challenge. The other is getting that into the hands of students at the right time. For that, it is important for the federal government to work with college access organizations and guidance counselors.
Students should be able to access this information as they begin considering attending college. Although additional information may not allow a student to graduate debt-free, it will help him or her to make a more informed decision about where to attend college and if the price tag is worth paying.
Robert Kelchen is the methodologist for Washington Monthly magazine's annual college rankings and uses available federal data to compile the rankings.
Authors: The Conversation