Good Data Not Good for Bad Colleges

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More often than one might think, Americans on the “Right” agree with Americans on the “Left” when it comes to higher education. A few years ago, the Pope Center hosted an event that brought together three critics from each wing of the political spectrum to explore the intersection of their views.

I suspect that there will be similar agreement over the argument that the nation needs far better data on the results of college for students.

The New America Foundation, a think tank on the left recently published a report entitled College Blackout: How the Higher Education Lobby Fought to Keep Students in the Dark. Authors Claire McCann and Amy Laitinen write, “Measuring whether students have graduated, whether Pell grant recipients have graduated, or whether graduates earn enough to pay down their debts is not hard. In fact, it is relatively easy.” The reason why we don’t have access to the information needed to answer such questions is that Congress has blocked the creation of a federal student unit record system that would pull together for easy analysis a great amount of information that is already collected.

At present, the government has massive amounts of aggregate data on the success (or not) of college students.  Unfortunately, that is of no help in specific situations.  Suppose that Bill Smith is thinking about college and wonders how well students who have gone through some of the degree programs he is contemplating have fared. Perhaps Bill is interested in psychology. He might major in psychology at State U., but would like to know what percentage of psych majors at State U. in recent years have found employment and what is the range of their earnings. Currently, he would find it hard if not impossible to get the data he needs.

The idea behind the federal student unit record system is to allow students and their families to make their decisions in the light of such particularized information. Some states have taken this step (Virginia is one, as we learn in this piece) but the federal government is blocked from doing so by a law it passed in 2008.

McCann and Laitinen make a persuasive case that the reason why Congress voted to forbid the creation of a student unit record system was the lobbying of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU). Although NAICU couched its opposition to that system in terms of privacy concerns, that looks like a pretext that obscures the real reason for opposition.

That reason, the authors argue, is that such data would be very bad for business at many NAICU members – for-profit colleges that earn most of their revenues from relatively weak students who are spending government loan funds. Those schools would look like a poor use of time and money if a student unit record system made it easy for prospective students to look at their track records.

It wouldn’t only be the dubious for-profit institutions that would worry about a more revealing data system, however. It would also jeopardize many non-profit schools whose business model consists of putting as many students as possible through, whether they learn anything useful or not. Those schools bank on drawing in academically marginal students with the idea that the degrees they offer will pay off.  A federal student unit record system would show where that tends to be true and where it usually isn’t. Many apple carts would be upset.

Better student data will help disabuse people of the higher education establishment’s well-cultivated notion that college degrees are necessarily a good investment.  Many non-NAICU college and universities would tremble at that, but I welcome it.

This is another point where left and right can agree.

George Leef

George Leef is Director of Research for the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

One thought on “Good Data Not Good for Bad Colleges”

  1. George –
    You have made several serious errors in your essay which should be corrected.
    First, the NAICU membership comprises some 1,000 private, nonprofit colleges and universities in the United States. We do not represent for-profit schools.
    Second, private nonprofit colleges are very successful in graduating students. Some 78 percent of students enrolled in private, nonprofit colleges graduate on-time, compared to some 40 percent at public colleges and universities.
    Further, our concerns about a federal student unit record system are consistent with a core belief since our founding in the 1970’s, the right of students to privacy.

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