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Students don’t know what they’re getting when they pick a college — data can fix that

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When it comes to higher education, so much of what we buy is a black box.

Most students don’t know how much they’ll pay prior to enrollment, let alone where their predecessors landed jobs after graduation. Were they able to pay off their debt? How meaningful did they find the work they were doing after they had graduated?

Besides slick brochures, television advertisements, and highway billboards, little exists beyond U.S. News and World Report’s often criticized rankings to help students and families make sense of what is often one of the largest investments of their lives.

{mosads}Hidden for most is the fact that while 88 percent of freshman now say that “getting a good job” is their primary motivation for going to college, only 27 percent of alumni report having a good job upon graduation.


Although three-quarters of college presidents believe their institutions should publish data to help “consumers” understand critical outcomes like debt load of graduates or job placement rates, few, if any U.S. institutions willingly offer up such information. 

It should, therefore, be no surprise that there is a growing sense of buyer’s remorse among consumers of higher education. Recent data from Strada Education Network and Gallup’s daily survey of almost 90,000 adults suggests that most graduates would change degrees, institutions or majors if they had the chance to do it all over again.

Higher education’s transparency problem is not a dearth of data. There is a wealth of information available, from statewide data systems to the U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard, with the potential to provide education consumers with a window into enrollment and outcomes. 

The problem is that there is no way for consumers to connect and compare this information. To make matters worse, federal law currently prevents students and families from finding the sort of outcomes information that might enable them to make better decisions about where they go to school. 

One way to address the problem would be to lift the ban on the creation of an individual student unit record: data regarding students’ enrollment, persistence, and completion over time. These records could help prospective students differentiate one institution from another by how well that college or university’s programs were serving its students. 

Although the concept has grown in popularity throughout the past decade or so, colleges and universities worry that such data could be used to tie performance to the federal financial aid upon which they are dependent. And some critics contend that the creation of such a record would somehow impede students’ right to privacy. 

Let’s be clear, there’s no substance to this privacy argument. When students use their mobile phones or browse the internet, the big tech companies — Apple, Alphabet, Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook — already learn their vices and consumption habits, how fit they are, how much they sleep and eat. They willingly relinquish personal data through every transaction, every tweet, and every “like.” 

In contrast, the matching of anonymous student outcomes to earnings data poses little risk, and offers profound benefits by illuminating a needlessly opaque education market. Some researchers have already demonstrated the insights we can access through such integration.

MacArthur Genius Award-winner Raj Chetty and his research team made waves when they revealed that children’s prospects of earning more than their parents have fallen from 90 percent to 50 percent over the past half century. They also identified and ranked all colleges in the U.S. by how well they functioned as engines of upward mobility.  

Researchers from American Institutes for Research recently stitched together the longitudinal data for seven different states to show that a bachelor’s degree is not always the best pathway to success.

In December, the House of Representatives education committee took the encouraging step of including language in its Higher Education Act bill that would direct the secretary of education to study the feasibility of allowing the National Student Clearinghouse to create a system for analyzing this kind of data.

To make well-informed decisions, we need to empower the real consumers of higher education. We ennoble college as the pathway to a better life, but we don’t offer critical data to students and families. We need to connect the dots between learning and employment outcomes. It’s time to unlock higher education’s black box.

Michelle Weise is senior vice president at Strada Education Network, formerly known as United Student Aid Funds.

Tags College Education Higher education Student debt

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