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Congress to Take on Higher Ed Reform? Thanks, But No Thanks


Congress is considering legislation that seeks to hold American higher ed institutions accountable for results. On Thursday, a group of Senators proposed the “Student Right to Know Before You Go Act”, a bill that would create a federal database containing the career outcomes of graduates for every college in the country.

Similar proposals have been tossed about on Capitol Hill for years, but Inside Higher Ed notes that this bill is generating some controversy:

Like the previous version introduced in the last Congress, the legislation, the Student Right to Know Before You Go Act, would require colleges to collect and disaggregate more data for the federal government. Colleges would make information public about students’ salaries by major and program; graduation and remediation rates; success rates for students who receive a Pell Grant or veterans’ benefits; and other benchmarks not currently collected in such detail.

This time, though, the bill’s sponsors, who include Senator Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat, as well as Rubio and Wyden, also call for a federal “unit record” database—a database administered by the Education Department that could track students through college and into the work force.

If the bill passes, information on post-graduation average annual earnings, average cost of programs, and average debt accumulated would be readily available to the public. The results would also be disaggregated, in order to allow students and families to track information based on program, institution, and employment sector.

The intentions behind this bill are good, but we see a problem. Efforts to set up a universal, national standard applied by the federal government seem to us like an attempt to bureaucratize and homogenize the system. Most federal mandates in education begin with similar goals but end up creating a complex web of unintended consequences and crazy distortions. Public schools began to game the system after No Child Left Behind was passed; universities will no doubt game the system too if the feds venture into the business of grading colleges.

Our reasons for being skeptical of this bill stem from our observation that education is ultimately an individual process. Every student (and parent) ultimately has to make a personal assessment of what he or she wants to get out of a university or a particular major or program—and whether the costs and the debt burdens are worth it. More than Senators with good intentions, we need parents and students to put pressure on colleges to produce data that will help them make decisions. The last thing we need is more federal authority over what colleges teach.

[Mortar boards image courtesy of Shutterstock]

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