Students have a 'right to know' just what that degree is worth

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What Is a College Degree Worth?

Over the past few weeks, the media has been fixated on the left's push for debt-free college. But one significant – and bipartisan – development that could improve the lives of students didn't receive the attention it deserved.

In late May, a bipartisan coalition in the House of Representatives – led by Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., and including three Republicans and two Democrats introduced the Student Right to Know Before You Go Act. Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Mark Warner, D-Va., introduced the same bill in the Senate, a repeat of their effort last Congress.

Both bills would provide students and parents with key indicators of student success at different institutions and programs they might be considering. For example, under the proposed changes, prospective students could learn how successful graduates and drop-outs from particular degree or certificate programs are, on average, when they reach the labor market. Are they able to find jobs that allow them to pay back their loans?

Clearly, earnings are not everything, and not everyone is "average." But comparing such data points across programs could help students avoid catastrophically bad investment decisions and, hopefully, shop around for the most valuable program.

Some might argue that the answers to these questions are readily discernable already. After all, who doesn't know that anthropology majors make less than engineers? But not all comparisons are as clear-cut, especially when you consider the wide variety of credentials and fields of study that students can choose from. As a recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal highlighted, it is not an iron law that bachelor's degrees are the most valuable; indeed, there are shorter-term credentials – associate degrees and certificates in technical fields – that are as or more valuable than the average B.A. For example, in Florida, apprentices in industrial machinery maintenance can earn around $80,000 just one year after they complete their training, far above the median earnings among those receiving a bachelor's degree from a public institution in the state (roughly $40,000).

Such information would help students identify valuable programs that may be hidden in plain sight, overshadowed by the glossy amenities and rankings that measure prestige and admissions selectivity rather than the value of the education schools provide. This is particularly critical for working adults looking to re-tool for a new career, who must often balance school and existing commitments to work and family. Estimates suggest that 40 percent of undergraduates are over the age of 25; 27 percent work 35 hours or more per week while enrolled. And better decisions are doubly important now that roughly 70 percent of college graduates now take on some kind of student debt to help pay for school.

Can't the private sector do this? Or the states? Unfortunately, both actors are limited here. While some private sector entities – such as the National Student Clearinghouse – have robust records about student enrollments and completion, they lack relevant information on earnings and loan repayment. Others, like PayScale.com, have amassed impressive amounts of salary data linked to institutions and programs, but they rely on self-reported data and coverage is uneven (especially at the two-year level.

Some states have made great strides in collecting data on programs and graduates within their state, and those data have often been eye-opening. But state agencies cannot follow program graduates that move across state lines, leaving a large number of students out of the analysis. Nor can they measure the repayment of federal loans.

In short, the federal government is unique in its capacity to provide this type of information. The feds not only hold most outstanding student loans – and thus information about repayment rates – but they also maintain comprehensive earnings data through tax and Social Security records. With some additional data about student enrollments – nothing beyond a student's institution and major – the feds could easily produce aggregate information about student outcomes in a way that is completely anonymous.

Unfortunately, when the George W. Bush administration proposed that the federal government compile this information and make it available to students and parents, Congress, citing concerns about student privacy, banned the feds from doing any such thing in 2008. The legislation introduced by Hunter and others last month would reverse this ban and again direct the relevant federal agencies to compile and disseminate this important information. But the bill is likely to face many of the same objections as prior efforts; if anything privacy concerns (and privacy advocates) have become even more salient of late with the growth of the "opt-out" anti-testing movement in K-12 education and the hacking of the Office of Personnel Management.

Student privacy must be of the utmost importance to policymakers. However, it's hard to see how this legislation creates new risks in that regard. After all, the federal government already maintains most of the underlying data – earnings records, student loan repayment histories and enrollment information for those receiving federal grants and loans. The bill is as much about making available information the feds already house – aggregated by program and institution – as it is about collecting new information.

It is worth noting, too, that many of the privacy-based objections have come from private colleges and universities (as others have written). While schools are well within their rights to advocate on behalf of their students, you can't ignore the fact that trade associations have a strong interest in keeping data that could embarrass their members under wraps. With Congress set to take up a reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, Hunter's bipartisan effort will certainly rekindle this debate. While it won't solve everything, leaders should take every step they can to empower students and parents to make smart higher education investments.

Copyright 2015 U.S. News & World Report


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