Frustrations Over Consumer Tool

The Trump administration's changes to a key transparency tool have frustrated even some supporters among veterans' groups.

October 8, 2018
 
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As they push forward with a plans to drop the accountability rule known as gainful employment, Education Department officials have talked up plans to expand consumer information as an alternative to the hotly debated regulations.

Even groups that backed the department’s proposal to drop gainful employment, however, are angry over a decision to drop national comparison measures from the College Scorecard, the tool that’s supposed to help students navigate their higher ed options.

“This is a step in the wrong direction. It's absolutely ridiculous,” said Daniel Elkins, legislative director of the Enlisted Association of the National Guard of the United States (EANGUS).

Because veterans earn education benefits, they've often been targeted by unscrupulous education providers. So veterans' organizations have been strong advocates for consumer protections and information.

The Obama administration issued the gainful-employment rule in 2014 to hold career education programs and for-profit colleges accountable for graduating students with debt they couldn’t repay. But Education Secretary Betsy DeVos in August said she would look to repeal the rule, saying her department would empower students “instead of targeting schools simply by their tax status.” Part of that plan is adding data on program-level outcomes for institutions -- students would be able to see what the typical liberal arts student at a college earns, for example, compared to the typical engineering student.

Unlike many other veterans' groups, EANGUS supported the decision to drop gainful employment. But the group said it was mystified last week by the department’s decision to drop data showing how individual colleges compared to the national median on measures like net price, graduation rate, typical earnings and loan repayment rates.

“Without knowing what the national median is, having this outcome data isn't helpful because there’s nothing to compare it to,” Elkins said.

The Education Department said it dropped the national median outcomes data -- as well as a measure showing what share of a college’s students earned more than high school graduates -- because officials thought those benchmarks were misleading to students.

Diane Auer Jones, the principal deputy under secretary of education, also said last month that the department sees most students as choosing between a handful of college options in their area rather than picking among options across the country.

Nate Bailey, a spokesman for the department, said it is still releasing data on national median outcomes for those who think it's relevant, just not as part of the Scorecard consumer tool. 

"The Scorecard enables students to compare outcomes among the institutions of interest to them and available to them, which is what matters for decision making.We are exploring ways to compare institutions that serve similar students, have similar levels of selectivity, and share other characteristics. In the meantime, what matters most to students is the ability to compare among their choices," he said. "For most students, choice is far more narrowly defined than a national average represents."

(Note: This story was updated to include comments from the Education Department.) 

Veterans' groups have been among the most vocal proponents of data on higher ed outcomes like earnings and loan repayment. Most supported keeping the gainful-employment rule. Dropping national data from the Scorecard undermines the government’s own justification for repealing the rule, they said.

“It’s the basis of being an informed consumer,” said John Kamin, assistant director of veterans' employment and education at the American Legion.

The Scorecard data is also the basis for several consumer tools operated by other federal agencies. The Department of Veterans Affairs runs the GI Bill Comparison Tool, which lets students see how far their benefits will go at various institutions. And the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau operates a personalized disclosure site called the Electronic Financial Impact Platform that it has required colleges charged with misrepresentation to make available to prospective students. As of last week, the VA tool also no longer displayed the data on national median outcomes.

Those tools are important because they get information to students with a variety of circumstances, said Michael Itzkowitz, a senior fellow at the think tank Third Way and the former director of the College Scorecard.

“Generally, with students in a college search process, you don’t want to have them clicking on multiple websites if possible to find the information they’re looking for,” he said. “You want to make it as easy as possible.”

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