By Senators Marco Rubio and Ron Wyden
A college education is the biggest and most important financial investment a young person can make in their own future. As the costs of college continue to skyrocket, students are increasingly turning to larger and larger loans to finance their education. For many, a college education can run into the tens of thousands of dollars with some of the more expensive institutions reaching into six figure from matriculation to graduation. But students and families are choosing to take on these increasingly-expensive investments because the data are clear that not getting a degree is ultimately more expensive than getting a degree. Those with degrees earn far more, on average, than those without. College graduates are also far less likely to be unemployed than non-graduates.
While it is clear that a college degree is a great value in general, what is not at all clear is the value of particular degrees from particular colleges. Prospective students are making critical career and life path decisions when they choose a college and a program. But students are making these decisions with shockingly little information about how likely it is they'll graduate from a particular school, how much debt they'll have when they graduate, what their future earnings are likely to be and what the likelihood is that they'll make enough money to pay down their debts after they graduate.
How can it be that we lack the data when we are flooded with college rankings and reports? Too often, these reports, like the widely-regarded analysis by U.S. News & World Report, overlook inputs like debt burdens and post-graduation success in finding good-paying, meaningful jobs. Furthermore, these rankings only account for first-time, full-time students which make up a diminishing share of all students. The archetypal college student -- an 18 year old full time student attending college for the first time -- makes up an ever-decreasing share of the student population, yet you wouldn't know that from the rankings.
This is a little bit shocking considering we live in a data driven world. Companies collect it and use to as a way to decide who to advertise their products to. The government collects census data to better allocate resources and fairly provide representation. Twitter users have access to analytics to see how many times their tweets have been re-tweeted and what the reach is on their messages. Yet students don't have access to data that could help them make real-world decisions about their futures and policymakers are given an incomplete picture when making decisions about how to best allocate tax dollars.
To address this information gap, we have introduced the Student Right to Know Before You Go Act to connect the information collected by states and schools and open up access directly to students and the general public. By allowing states to disseminate this data through a coordinated system, students would not only know exactly what to expect from the institution they are looking to attend but what to expect once they graduate. This would provide real, on the ground information for students and families to help them make smart decisions about their futures. Recognizing the benefits of an approach to education that promotes value as well as access, this idea has the support of the United States Student Association.
Some worry that making earnings data public will tip the scales and drive students towards high-paying careers over less financially lucrative but equally important vocations. But this ignores that students make decisions based on much more than potential earnings. If that weren't the case, we would have no social workers, teachers, or writers. A student who finds teaching intrinsically rewarding isn't going to look at the data and say "I really had my heart set on being a teacher but investment banking is much more lucrative." But shouldn't students be able to make those types of tradeoffs with accurate information? Potential salary is just one portion of the decision-making process but it is in no way the only factor. Students and families will make the best decisions for themselves based on a myriad of factors. The government should make sure that students and families have all the data they need to make that the most well-informed investment possible.