This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.
When Troy Grant was looking at colleges as a prospective student, he had little idea how much they would actually cost, whether certain degrees would lead to good jobs or other basic information that helps young people make one of the most expensive decisions of their lives.
The first in his immediate family to go to college, Grant struggled to understand terms such as “credit hour” and to compare institutions on such things as their graduation rates.
“We had the will, but we had no idea what we were doing,” he said of himself and his family. “We were navigating a process that was foreign to us.”
Grant eventually attended a small college in Nashville, graduating in 2004 and ending up as senior director of college access and success at the Tennessee Higher Education Commission. Years later, he said, more data is available, but some students are still not getting all the information they need to make informed choices.
Now Tennessee is one of several states trying to change that by providing students with more information about graduation rates, annual costs and graduates’ earnings.
With federal data on college costs and outcomes limited in some crucial ways, and colleges and universities themselves often making it hard to find answers, several states have quietly passed or proposed laws requiring that certain information be made available to consumers about what they’ll get for their investment in a higher education.
Legislators in at least seven states considered bills this year that would require agencies to collect and publicize data about graduates’ monthly loan payments, how many are working in jobs that require a degree and other consumer-friendly information about colleges.
Eight states now legally require the collection and distribution of some college information, according to the Data Quality Campaign, a nonprofit organization: Arkansas, Arizona, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia.
The push comes at a time when Americans are increasingly skeptical about the cost of higher education. In a country where only 64 percent of students graduate from college in six years, experts say more transparency can help Americans make better choices about where to attend.
The Tennessee Higher Education Commission, for example, operates a website on which prospective students can browse data about colleges, such as average annual cost by family income and most popular majors, as well as information about state financial aid grants and in-demand careers. The site, CollegeForTN.org, was updated in 2018 after the legislature asked for additional information to be posted publicly.
“We want to give them the content they need in order to make an informed decision about their destination,” Grant said.
States have good reason to want to hold colleges and universities accountable. State and local governments spent $113 billion subsidizing public universities and colleges and providing financial aid in the last fiscal year, according to the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association. Meanwhile, thousands of students are choosing and attending colleges without any idea of the return they can expect on their investment, or even their likelihood of graduating.
“It’s hard to overstate the importance of transparency about cost and outcomes,” said Beth Akers, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. As it is, she said, people who are paying or borrowing to go to college don’t always understand how much they may eventually end up paying.
“At the same time they have very little understanding of where their path in college is likely to lead them,” Akers said. “It seems that people have blind faith in the system of higher education to deliver them toward a good outcome, but it doesn’t work out that way.”
Overall, the return on an investment in a higher education is strong, as people with bachelor’s degrees make on average 84 percent more over their lifetimes than people with only high school diplomas, according to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. But individual outcomes can vary widely, and some programs and colleges don’t leave students better off. Knowing which programs and institutions to avoid can be key for prospective students.
The federal government and private organizations do provide some information, but that data isn’t always useful or accurate enough for students. The government and other sources, such as U.S. News and World Report, collect information directly from colleges and universities, some of which has been found to be incorrect or questionable. Columbia University is the most recent of many institutions shown over the years to have provided inaccurate information to U.S. News.
The federal government began putting graduation rates, average debt and other measures for students on the College Scorecard website in 2015. Since then, the Department of Education has used the site to release even more granular data, like the earnings and debt associated with specific programs and majors.
However, the Department of Education is limited in what it can collect and release. In 2008, Congress banned the federal government from connecting individual students’ data across federal agencies. The result is that the department can release earnings and debt data only from student loan borrowers. It can’t, say, release information about which colleges have the best outcomes for low-income students of color, even though that data could be created by partnering with tax agencies.
The College Transparency Act, proposed in Congress last year, would have lifted the ban on that type of information; it passed the House, but has since stalled.
Other data the federal government reports can be misleading, such as graduation rates, which consumers may assume measure how many students graduate in four years when the federal government’s College Scorecard counts successful graduation as the proportion who finish in eight.
As for information universities and colleges provide directly to consumers, much of it is out of date or wrong, with no one verifying it, researchers have found. Offers of financial aid, for example, are almost impossible to compare from one institution to another and often don’t use the word “loan” when referring to families’ borrowing of funds. Job placement rates for graduates are often based on email surveys of alumni, many of whom do not respond.
There are some indications that states might be able to do a better job than the federal government at data collection and distribution. States aren’t subject to existing federal bans on data linking and can give students more specific regional information.
Some states, including Tennessee, still use federal data on their public websites. But a state agency can add more specific local information, such as which colleges students can use state financial aid to pay for.
Other states, like Kentucky, have created their own data systems that can track residents from kindergarten into the workforce and link data from state agencies.
Colorado passed a law in the spring creating a postsecondary student success data system, requiring that the state post information about institutions and postsecondary and workforce success, such as how many students continue from one year to the next and how long it takes graduates to pay off their debts. The law also requires that the state post data specifically about graduation rates for nontraditional students, meaning those who attend part-time or have returned after dropping out, who aren’t included in some measures of graduation rates.
“We know that families want a good return on their investment when their child enters a postsecondary program,” said Rep. Monica Duran, a Democrat in Colorado’s legislature who co-sponsored the bill. “This bill will help them achieve that through the transparency and the objective of the data that we’re gathering.”
The Colorado effort, which had bipartisan support, will be paid for from federal American Rescue Plan Act money allocated to the state. Other states have used U.S. Department of Education grants to build their data systems.
But as states are gearing up to provide more and more information, the real question will be whether students choose to use it. There’s some evidence to show they might not.
The University of Texas system pioneered a collaboration with the Census Bureau in 2018 to provide students with more information about the earnings they could expect after completing different programs. But two years after that initiative began, students did not appear to be changing their courses of study, university officials said.
The state of Virginia similarly provides students with a hefty amount of data about colleges, including information on debt, financial aid, transfer outcomes and wages for specific programs. A student interested in history can easily find out that students who major in history at the University of Virginia make on average about $73,000 annually five years after they’ve graduated, while students in the comparable program at the College of William and Mary make about $58,000.
However, Tod Massa, policy analytics director at the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, said he isn’t sure that students are using this information.
“I think some fraction of students use the data,” Massa said. But “how many high school students are actually going to think to go to a state agency website to research colleges and universities?”
Part of the issue, Massa said, may be that students can have trouble navigating data if they don’t know what they’re looking for. There are 600 program combinations at public colleges in Virginia alone, he said.
Virginia passed a new law in the spring that makes the state’s Department of Education and school boards responsible for distributing information about colleges to public high school students.
“They have direct access to high school students,” Massa said. “We do not.”
Other states have looked into putting the information directly in the hands of students by printing and distributing it. Experts say that students can’t be expected to find and operate byzantine government websites on their own, which is why states need to make data usable and attractive, and get trusted advisers to help students make sense of it.
Jennifer Bell-Ellwanger, president and CEO of the Data Quality Campaign, said more states are now including provisions in their laws to require that the data be shared with high school career counselors who can bring it to students and help them understand the information.
“This data is not accessible, and that’s the key particularly about state outcomes,” Bell-Ellwanger said. “It’s not enough just to have it collected, but it has to be shared.”
There’s some evidence that providing more data about tuition, debt and financial aid might help students consider some colleges they wouldn’t have before. Eighty percent of students surveyed dismissed colleges as potential places to attend based on sticker price, a study by Sallie Mae found, even though most students don’t pay the full amount.
Some experts say that while more data is always good, disclosures won’t change everything.
The federal government could do more to elevate good programs and demand accountability from bad ones, said Wesley Whistle, a former policy director at the higher education program at New America, a liberal think tank.
Also, most students choose to go to college close to home, often because of financial constraints or family obligations, Whistle said. Those students can look at data all day, but often will have few real options.
“Information only does so much,” he said. “There’s a need to use that data to implement policy change to help students.”
But as long as a significant number of students are finding they can’t get a job that pays off their loans or can’t graduate in four years, data will continue to be important, said Stacie Gordon, executive director of the Partners for College Affordability and Public Trust.
“It’s important. It’s essential. And that’s probably one of the most pressing issues in higher ed right now,” Gordon said. “Data is king.”
This story about college costs was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.