House Approves College Transparency Act

It calls for all colleges to release information on student enrollment, persistence, transfer and completion measures for all programs and degree levels.

February 7, 2022
 
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The U.S. House of Representatives on Friday approved an amendment to add the College Transparency Act to another bill, which the House then passed.

Under the College Transparency Act, colleges would be required to collect and submit data to the Department of Education regarding student enrollment, persistence, transfer and completion measures for all programs and degree levels. The data would also be disaggregated by demographics, including race and ethnicity, gender, and age. The bill would permit the Department of Education to periodically share limited data with other federal agencies, like the Internal Revenue Service and the Social Security Administration, to calculate postgraduate outcomes, such as income and career prospects.

The result would be much more information about how colleges perform at educating students.

Despite all the information that will be provided about students’ performance, sponsors of the bill insist there are no real dangers to people’s privacy, as the information will be provided in aggregate form.

The transparency act has broad support from higher education organizations and has been endorsed by more than 150 such organizations and other groups.

Congress has debated versions of the College Transparency Act since 2017, when a bipartisan group of lawmakers first introduced legislation to end a then decade-long ban on a federal data system to track movement through higher education and into the workforce. The data system has historically been opposed by many private colleges and some Republican lawmakers, although key GOP leaders like former senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee have backed the concept. Most recently, one of the primary sponsors of the original legislation, a former Republican representative from Michigan, issued a plea days before his death that Congress pass the legislation.

“This bipartisan, bicameral bill would help students and families, policymakers, institutions and employers to make informed decisions by providing more complete information about college access, success, costs, and outcomes,” said a letter from the groups. “This information empowers students and families to make well-informed choices about their education, policymakers and institutions to craft evidence-based policies to help students succeed, and employers to navigate the talent pipeline they need to grow the economy. Without complete, representative data that counts all students, equity will be out of reach.”

The bill the College Transparency Act was attached to is the America COMPETES Act of 2022, which would authorize billions of dollars in research investments to better enable the United States to compete with China. The Senate version of the bill does not include the College Transparency Act.

However, supporters of the bill are very hopeful it will be approved by the conference committee that will review differences between the two bills. The four chief sponsors of the bill in the Senate are a bipartisan mix—Senator Bill Cassidy of Louisiana and Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina are Republicans, and Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island are Democrats.

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“This has been a long time coming,” said Craig Lindwarm, vice president for governmental affairs at the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities. Lindwarm stressed that there was “still a long way to go,” but he said he was confident that the bill would gain final approval from Congress and be signed by President Biden.

The report is also consistent with ideas the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has promoted. In a report the foundation released in May, it said that policy makers, colleges and students need this information to be public: students (and those who advise students) need the information to decide where to go to colleges. Colleges need the information to improve their programs. Policy makers need the information to better understand higher education.

The report praised the University of Texas system. The university system gives current and prospective students a wealth of information about how recent graduates like them have fared in the job market. The website links to records from the Texas Workforce Commission to track 68,000 alumni of the system’s 15 universities into the workforce, providing earnings and loan debt levels one year and five years after graduation by institution and major.

The Gates Foundation released this statement on the bill’s passage: “The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation believes students deserve accurate and complete information about college outcomes before investing their time and money, while also protecting their own privacy. We invest in efforts to ensure that data are collected and reported in an ethical, efficient, secure, and transparent way so that learners—and those supporting them—have the information they need to help them succeed in education and careers. We also believe it’s critical to have data safeguards in place, and to ensure that privacy and security considerations are built into the work from the outset.”

The Institute for Higher Education Policy, which worked closely on the Gates report, also released a statement: “As our nation continues to navigate the disruption caused by the COVID-19 public health and economic crisis, the need for the reforms proposed in CTA has never been more urgent. Students deserve to know which institutions will provide them with the best return on investment. Policymakers should be equipped to target resources to promote student success and scale effective interventions. And institutions and employers should be able to enhance opportunities to build a stronger, more dynamic workforce and to drive an equitable economic recovery for all.”

The amendment adding the College Transparency Act also added a provision that excludes students who attend proprietary institutions from being eligible for new Job Training Federal Pell Grant assistance. The new program is frequently referred to as "short-term Pell," because it would make Pell Grants available for certificate and other academic programs that are of shorter duration than current Pell Grant requirements allow.

The move to adopt the College Transparency Act was not without critics. Representative Virginia Foxx, from North Carolina, who is the Republican leader on the Education and Labor Committee, released this statement: “The more information the federal government has, the more they can control and that is exactly what this amendment is about—more control. From registries to lists, databases to files, bureaucrats would have unfettered access to pry into the lives of Americans. No amount of public relations spin from supporters can hide the indisputable fact that this amendment is not about ensuring transparency and accountability. It is pure political hackery.”

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