Opinion: Help students make informed college choices

Paul Mitchell
TheCollege Transparency Act would create a data system to help students and families make informed postsecondary choices by providing better information about college outcomes in a transparent, user-friendly way, Mitchell says.

Across the nation, millions of students await admissions decisions from colleges and universities while they and their families contemplate how they will afford the costs and what they will achieve from that education.

A postsecondary education, whether university, community college or trade school, is one of the largest investments young people and their families will ever make – with long-lasting consequences.

Yet the information available when making a decision about postsecondary institutions and education programs is terribly lacking.

As the father of six – including one in college right now and three already graduated from college – I, too, have been forced to play this guessing game with my children.

The lack of data regarding the outcomes of these programs is appalling given the costs to students, their families, and frankly taxpayers. Potential students and all taxpayers should readily be able to identify the return on investment of any postsecondary education programs.

Currently, students are unable to access accurate and comprehensive information about graduation and employment rates by major or credential level, inhibiting them from making informed decisions about the investment in their futures.

To put it bluntly: one can find more information these days on the reliability of a washing machine than one can about the likelihood of attaining a degree resulting in a meaningful career.

Further, when students make misinformed decisions about where to pursue an education, the student loan crisis is worsened and the American workforce suffers. This is unacceptable.

That’s why this term I, along with a number of my colleagues, reintroduced the bipartisan College Transparency Act, which would create a data system to help students and families make informed postsecondary choices by providing better information about college outcomes in a transparent, user-friendly way.

Much of this data currently exists; however, the current college reporting system is overly burdensome on institutions and due to significant gaps in college data reporting, provides little practical and incomplete information for students and families.

Under the proposed updated system, institutions would securely report privacy-protected, student-level data to the Commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). The commissioner, in consultation with a diverse group of stakeholders – including cybersecurity officials, postsecondary education institutions and researchers, students, and more – would work with other federal agencies to produce secure, temporary data matches to develop overall aggregate data by program on students’ outcomes and earnings. The summary of information would be presented on a user-friendly website for students and families to compare their options.

What this means for students is they can look online and see what the outcome of a program may be before they apply and enroll. They should know the likelihood of future success if they are accepted to the school, pay the tuition and costs, do the work, and graduate.

They will also be able to compare outcomes for programs, for example the nursing program at Michigan State University to the nursing program at the University of Michigan. Prospective students should also be able to tell the difference in outcomes of different programs within a college — for example the difference in outcomes of picking the nursing program versus computer science, literature, or any other major.

It has long been a priority of mine to ensure students and families have the necessary tools to make informed decisions about their education. Providing these data points and increasing transparency in higher education will enable students and families to make decisions regarding their investments in their futures. College classes should be challenging, determining the best college options should not be.

Paul Mitchell represents Michigan's 10th district in the U.S. House of Representatives.