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Experts Discuss Proposal to Increase Access to College-Outcome Info

With a college degree translating into an average of $1 million more in lifetime earnings over a high school diploma, it's hard to argue that higher education is not worth the investment.

But not all degrees are of equal value.

Research shows it matters what you study and your eventual occupation. And some schools have a better track records in graduating students on time and with less debt.

This is why U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.,and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., introduced the Right To Know Before You Go Act earlier this year — to provide families with better access to information about colleges and likely future earnings. The proposal would require states to match individual-level transcript data to post-graduation employment and earnings outcomes, replacing the current Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) reporting requirements.

Current data collected by the federal government only track first-time, full-time students, who represent an ever-diminishing portion of college students today, said Wyden at a discussion of the topic Wednesday at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

"At best, the information students get today is incomplete," said Wyden. "At a time when education is the second biggest investment a young person makes, they want information that is truly usable. ... This takes oceans of data out there and makes it relevant to the student."

The new approach would give students basic information on how likely it is they'll graduate from a particular school; how much debt they'll have when they graduate; what their future earnings are likely to be; and what the likelihood is that they'll make enough money to pay down their debts after they graduate, the lawmakers outlined in an op-ed piece yesterday.

"By allowing states to disseminate this data through a coordinated system, students would not only know exactly what to expect from the institution they are looking to attend but what to expect once they graduate. This would provide real, on the ground information for students and families to help them make smart decisions about their futures," the senators wrote in USA Today.

At the AEI event, Sen. Rubio said he viewed his $125,000 in student loan debt as an investment that he doesn't regret, but he believes students should be aware of the cost and potential earnings in their chosen field before enrolling and borrowing. "They need to know what the professional prospects are and weigh that against the investment," he said. "This is not to discourage kids from going to one school or one career, it's information that allows us to make wise decisions."

A shift to this form of data-gathering would eventually save schools time and money with record-keeping, suggested Wyden. Rubio noted with so much federal money going into Stafford Loans and Pell Grants that the government has an interest in making sure it is getting a return on its investment by helping students make good college choices.

The hope is that a more-informed consumer will lead to pressure for better efficiency in higher education. The senators and panelists that discussed the proposal acknowledged that this data may be one of several factors, such as culture and fit, that students consider when deciding on a school.

While streamlining the information may be good, it is important to figure out what is the right information for the federal government to collect, said Amy Jones, education policy counsel and senior advisor for Rep. U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce. "We don't want to layer one more thing on institutions that they have to spend time collecting and not spending time educating students," she said on the panel yesterday.

Mark Schneider, vice president of the American Institutes for Research, said 90 percent of the reason students say they go to college is to get a good job. "Higher education is the ultimate investment and students have the right to what what the outcome is likely to be," said Schneider at the event, who wrote about the proposed legislation in an essay in Inside Higher Ed. This week AIR released a study showing big gaps in earnings between degree programs and college graduates in Tennessee.

"Everybody needs a plan," said Anthony Carnevale, an economist with the Georgetown Center for Education and the Workforce, who has researched these issues. "We still live in a society where most young people think the goal is to graduate. That is no longer textured enough, given the price of a college education." While employment is not the only role for higher education, Carnevale added: "It is the pivotal one."

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