New Data on the Returns to College

Many people love to hate college rankings, but they have traditionally been one of the most easily digestible sources of information about institutions of higher education. We know very little about the outcomes of students who attend a particular college over time, so we tend to rely on simplistic measures such as graduation rates or measures of prestige. It is difficult to follow and assess the outcomes of students once they leave a given college for multiple reasons:

(1)    A substantial percentage of students transfer colleges at least once. A recent report estimated that about one-third of students who enrolled in fall 2006 were enrolled elsewhere sometime in the next five years. The growth of the National Student Clearinghouse has made following students easier, but it is difficult to figure out how to split the credit for successful outcomes across the colleges that a given student attends.

(2)    While the group of students to be assessed (everyone!) sounds straightforward, most of the push has been to focus on the outcomes of graduates. This makes for a reasonable comparison group across colleges, but colleges have different graduation rates. It makes sense to focus on all students who entered a college, but this would lower the returns to college (and doesn’t fit well with selective colleges, where everyone is assumed to graduate).

(3)    Some people choose to postpone entry into the full-time labor market, whether for good reasons (such as starting a family) or for more dubious reasons (such as getting a master’s degree and working on a PhD). Given the lack of a federal data system, other students will not be observed if they move out-of-state to work.

Even with all of the limitations of measuring student outcomes once they leave college, I am heartened to see states starting to track the labor market outcomes of students who attended public colleges and stay in-state. This requires the merging of two data systems that don’t always exist in some states and don’t talk to each other in others—state higher education data systems and unemployment insurance (UI) records. Two states, Arkansas and Tennessee, just launched websites with labor market information for graduates from their public institutions of higher education. While the sample included is far from perfect, it still provides useful data to many students, families, and policymakers.

Not surprisingly, many in academia are worried about these new measures, as they prioritize one of the purposes of higher education (employment) at the expense of other important purposes (such as critical thinking and higher-order learning). The comments on this recent Chronicle of Higher Education article are worth a read. I am concerned about policymakers solely relying on these imperfect measures of student outcomes, but stakeholders should be able to have more information about the effectiveness of colleges on as many outcomes as possible.

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.”