Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) is partnering with Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA) on a very Wyden-esque legislative proposal, the Student Right To Know Before You Go Act. The bill aims to reform reporting requirements for colleges and universities that receive federal funds so as to give students and their families more and more relevant information regarding the quality and cost of instruction, labor market outcomes for graduates, and the average debt accumulated. More specifically, per the description from Wyden’s office, it will:
1. Replace existing IPEDS [Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System] reporting requirements with a state-based and individual-level system which excludes any personally-identifiable data;
2. Require these new interoperable data systems to match individual level transcript data to post-graduation employment and earnings outcomes;
3. Reduce institutional reporting burden for institutions that report to both IPEDS and state data systems;
4. Further empower state data systems, making current federal Statewide Longitudinal Data System (SLDS) investments an even better value;
5. Create a data system with tremendous potential for policy analysis, research, and reporting, that contains no personally-identifiable data.
Wyden’s approach gives everyone the opportunity to probe, poke and prod the data to develop a better sense of their limits and their strengths. Regulations can come later, but in the meantime, the availability of these data will allow students and their families to make more informed choices about the likely outcome of their investment of time and money in a given program in a given school. The data will also allow state policy makers to judge the rate of return on their state’s investment of taxpayer monies in different programs.
We can already anticipate some of the responses to this legislation: that we shouldn’t judge colleges on a single number like salaries or the return on investment, that college education is about so much more than simply finding a job, that many of the societal benefits of having an educated population will not be measured, and so on. Of course many of these statements are true.
But the national commitment to higher education is largely about economic development and creating a skilled competitive workforce. Would the Obama administration be pushing its ambitious postsecondary agenda if colleges just taught students to parse Proust? Would students flock to colleges and universities to learn postmodern poststructural critical theory? Students, their families, taxpayers, and government officials need to know the likely returns for investing so much time and so much money in the pursuit of a degree. And the Wyden bill is likely to get this information into the public sphere faster than any other approach we are currently pursuing.