The Corner

Education

Can We Help Students Avoid Making Bad College Decisions?

Campus of the University of Michigan. (Wikimedia)

Remember Occupy Wall Street? Hordes of young people, mostly college graduates with a load of debt and no job, protested against their “oppression” and demanded that the government do something do relieve them of their poor decisions.

Would some of them, at least, have had a successful path if they had gone to a different school or chosen a different major? Probably so.

In today’s Martin Center essay, Jenna Robinson writes about a new plan at the Department of Education to eliminate the Obama-era “gainful employment” regulations aimed at sketchy for-profit schools and replace it with a program of publicizing student debt to earnings data for students at all colleges. The data would be published on the Department’s College Scorecard site.

“This level of transparency could help students make better decisions about their college education. But it is not clear that students will change their behavior with the new information, as some state transparency efforts have shown,” Robinson writes.

Much more useful that this information at the institutional level would be to provide it at the major level — i.e., how do students at a school do depending on what course of study they pursued. How do accounting majors compare with sociology majors, for example?

The University of North Carolina system does accumulate such data. Robinson picked one popular major (psychology) and then looked at the results for majors at ten of the UNC institutions. At only two, NC State and Elizabeth City, was the ratio of debt to earnings under 8 percent. Students contemplating a psych major might think again if they had this information.

If major-level data like that were available nationally, it could help quite a few students steer clear of majors that might seem fun and easy at the time, but which are apt to be debt-traps in the long-run.

Nevertheless, Robinson isn’t terribly optimistic that such information would make a lot of difference:

However, it’s likely that many students will continue to have expectations and make decisions that do not align with market reality. In many states, including North Carolina, excellent data on graduates’ salaries and employment rates are already available. Universities already disclose graduation and retention rates, default rates, and average debt levels annually to the Department of Education, which makes them available on various websites.

In sum, the Education Department’s new approach is certainly a good step, but just a single, small one.

George Leef is the director of research for the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

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