Knowing Before You Go

Knowing Before You Go

The American Enterprise Institute today hosted a discussion of the Student Right to Know Before You Go Act, introduced by Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) and co-sponsored by Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL). The two senators, both of whom are known for working across party lines, briefly discussed the legislation and were then followed by a panel of higher education experts. Video of the discussion will be available on AEI’s website shortly.

The goal of the legislation, as the senators discuss in a column in USA Today, is to provide more information about labor market and other important outcomes to students and their families. While labor market outcomes are rarely available in any systemic manner, this legislation would support states which release the data both at the school level and by academic programs. This sort of information cannot be collected at the federal level due to a restriction placed in Section 134 of the Higher Education Act reauthorization in 2008, which bans the Department of Education from having a student-level data system of the sort used in some states.

While nearly everyone across the political spectrum agrees that making additional data available is good for students and their families, there are certainly concerns about the proposed legislation. One concern is that the availability of employment data will make more rigorous accountability systems feasible, even though state-level data systems can only track students who stay within that state. This concern is shared by colleges, which tend to loathe regulation, and some conservatives, who don’t feel that the federal government should regulate higher education.

Additionally, measuring employment outcomes does place more of a focus on generating employment over some of the other goals of college (such as learning for learning’s sake). The security of these large unit-record datasets is also a concern of some people; I am less concerned about this given the difficulty of accessing deidentified data. (I’ve worked with the data from Florida, which has possibly the most advanced state-level data system. Getting access is extremely difficult.)

Although I certainly recognize those concerns, I strongly support this piece of legislation. It would reduce reporting requirements for colleges, since they would work primarily with states instead of the federal government. (In that respect, the legislation is quite conservative.) It makes more data available to all stakeholders in education and provides researchers with more opportunities to examine promising educational practices and intervention. Finally, it allows for states to make more informed decisions about how to allocate their scarce resources.

I don’t expect this legislation to go anywhere during this session of Congress, even with bipartisan support. Let’s see what happens next session, by which time I hope we are away from the “fiscal cliff.”

Analyzing UW-Madison’s Accountability Report

Recent legislative changes required the University of Wisconsin-Madison to submit an annual accountability report summarizing the university’s accomplishments over the previous year. While the UW System and UW-Madison already do a commendable job of making basic performance data public, this year’s accountability report nicely summarizes the performance data. A few highlights are below:

–The retention and graduation rates (for first-time, full-time students) are very high, as they should be given students’ academic and financial resources. Nearly 94% of students returned for a second year and 83% graduated within six years using the most recent data available. The retention and graduation rates are lower for targeted minority students (91% and 69%, respectively), but the gap is not nearly as large at UW-Madison as at many other universities.

–Just over half (52%) of all undergraduate students filed the FAFSA in 2011. Of these students, the median family income was just over $99,000. Given that most students who do not file the FAFSA and enroll in a selective college come from high-income families, the median family income of UW-Madison undergraduates is likely well in excess of $100,000 per year. This report does not include retention and graduation rates by Pell Grant receipt, but other UW-Madison data reports do.

–Roughly eight in ten students reported being able to enroll in desired classes most or all of the time (using data from the National Survey of Student Engagement). This is an improvement of roughly ten percentage points in the past five years, but more still needs to be done.

–ECON 101 (principles of microeconomics) was taken by 2,831 students in fall 2010 or spring 2011. That number makes me glad that I am no longer a TA for that course!

–UW-Madison claims an impact of $12.4 billion on the Wisconsin economy and creates or supports over 128,000 jobs. I am skeptical of those numbers, but the impact is clearly large. (But the question remains—what can we be doing better with our available funds?)

The accountability report for the rest of the UW System is available here.