While there is heated debate over how best to fix America’s higher education system, everyone agrees on the need for meaningful reform. It’s difficult to argue against reform in the face of college attainment rates that are stalled at just under 40 percent and the growing number of graduates left wondering whether they will ever find careers that allow them to pay off their mounting debts.
Any policy debate should start with a clear picture of how the dollars are being spent and whether that money is achieving the desired outcomes. Unfortunately, a lack of accurate data makes it impossible to answer many of the most basic questions for students, families and policy makers who are investing significant time and money in higher education.
During the recent State of the Union address, President Obama talked about shaking up the system of higher education to give parents more information, and colleges more incentives to offer better value. Though he provided little detail, this most certainly referred to the broad vision for higher education reform he outlined over the summer centered around a new a rating system for colleges and universities that would eventually be used to influence spending decisions on federal student financial aid.
However, the President’s proposal rests on a data system that is imperfect, at best. As former U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings said of the President’s plan, “we need to start with a rich and credible data system before we leap into some sort of artificial ranking system that, frankly, would have all kinds of unintended consequences.”
The American Council on Education, which represents the presidents of more than 1,800 accredited, degree-granting institutions, including two- and four-year colleges, private and public universities, and nonprofit and for-profit entities, agrees on the need for better data as well.
A senior staff member at ACE has been quoted to say that “if the federal government develops a high-stakes ratings system, they have an obligation to have very accurate data,” and that he was “surprised that anyone would think it controversial that having such data is a prerequisite.”
In order to bridge the data gap, we introduced the Student Right to Know Before You Go Act,  which would make the complete range of comparative data on colleges and universities easily accessible to the public online and free of charge by linking student-level academic data with employment and earnings data.
For the first time, students, and policy makers, would be able to accurately compare -- down to the institution and specific program of study -- graduation and transfer rates, frequency with which graduates go on to pursue higher levels of education, student debt and post-graduation earnings and employment outcomes. Such a linkage is the best feasible way to create this data-rich environment.
None of these metrics is currently available to those seeking to evaluate a school or program, though plenty of misleading data are out there.
For example, Marylhurst University, a small liberal arts school in Oregon, was assessed with a 0 percent graduation rate by the U.S. Department of Education. This is because the department's current metrics account only for first-time, full-time students, and Marylhurst serves nontraditional students who are part time or have returned to school later in life. Schools like this that serve nontraditional students -- who now make up the majority of all students -- don’t get credit for their success, at least not according to current federal evaluations.
With so many in the higher education community bemoaning the lack of quality data, and clear solutions forward on how to attain better data, why hasn’t it happened?
A major part of the answer: institutional self-interest. Every school in the country has widely disparate performance outcomes depending on the category, and many college presidents are in no hurry to make their less-than-appealing outcome data available for public scrutiny.
There’s a fear that students and families will vote with their pocketbooks and choose different schools that better meet their needs. The abundance of inaccurate and incomplete data provides institutional leaders with a line of defense: so long as such data are the norm upon which they are ranked and rated, they can defend themselves on the basis of flawed methodology.
Not all schools fear the implications of better quality data; in fact, many schools crave these data and want them made public. They know they’ll stack up well against their competition.
Moreover, many schools realize that getting better data is critical to helping identify what’s working and what’s not for their students in order to build stronger programs. Nevertheless, some of the “Big Six” higher education associations still cling to the status quo and represent a key challenge to realizing these commonsense reforms.
It is long past time for these important actors to look away from their self-interest and toward what’s in America’s collective interest -- a future where higher education produces better outcomes for students and the economy -- by supporting the Know Before You Go Act.
U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden is an Oregon Democrat, and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio is a Florida Republican.