Higher Education

While Washington wavers, states provide detailed college ratings

Many quietly provide consumers information that the federal government still doesn’t

President Barack Obama speaks at Macomb Community College, Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2015, in Warren, Mich. Obama announces new steps to expand apprenticeships and a push to make community college free for responsible students.

President Barack Obama speaks at Macomb Community College, Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2015, in Warren, Mich. Obama announces new steps to expand apprenticeships and a push to make community college free for responsible students.

David Gardner travels around Texas handing out thumb drives listing some of the most sensitive possible statistics about the performance of the state’s universities: how much they really cost, how many of their students actually get degrees, how much money their graduates make, and whether those incomes justify the cost of their tuition.

These are the kinds of facts and figures students and their families increasingly seek out before investing in the rising price of a college education.

It’s also some of the exact same information that has been the subject of a years-long push and pull in Washington. Some of the rest is even more detailed than envisioned by a national college ratings system proposed by the Obama administration that’s been delayed and watered down in the face of opposition from higher-education groups and threatened by Republicans in Congress.

With the apparent philosophy that something is better than nothing, President Barack Obama on Saturday unveiled a “College Scorecard,” which includes such things as the earnings of graduates from particular institutions but is based on limited data. Those average salaries of graduates, for instance, are calculated using the tax returns of only federal financial-aid recipients, since the federal government has no way to track anybody else.

But while the much more extensive national college ratings system the White House originally wanted remains mired in Washington vitriol and politics, the same and even better information about colleges and universities is already widely — if almost without notice — being made available by states including Texas.

Thirty-two states require their universities and colleges to provide this data. Many have begun to make it freely available to consumers on everything from thumb drives to smartphone apps — some, ironically, paying for the process with part of the $9 billion in federal stimulus money they got during the three years following the economic downturn.

“Because of the push on accountability, and issues with debt and other things, [states] are developing reporting systems that make sense rather than waiting for someone to tell them to do it,” said Gardner, deputy commissioner for academic planning and policy at the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, which provides the information on at least three different websites and is building an app for it.

Students and their parents “definitely do” demand this, he said. “And we want them to have a better feel for what college is going to cost, and what it gets them.”

Related: College-rating proposal shines spotlight on powerful lobby

The state action is being driven by more than Washington inertia. Many states have changed the way they subsidize their public universities and colleges, doling out funding based on graduation rates and other targets rather than solely on enrollment. That requires collecting much more information about the institutions’ success at meeting goals including keeping student debt low and training graduates for jobs, information most of those states also now provide directly to the public. Plus, since states operate their own public universities, they don’t have to jump through hoops to get the data in the way the federal government does. They can just tell the universities to hand it over.

“It goes back in a way to education being primarily a state responsibility, and that’s been the case forever,” said George Pernsteiner, president of the State Higher Education Executive Officers association and former chancellor of the Oregon State University System. “Now states are recognizing what they need to do in order for their citizens to be successful, and part of that is providing this information.”

Even some private universities and colleges are voluntarily giving data to their states, since they know prospective students can get it from the public institutions they compete with. At least one state, Virginia, requires its private universities to provide consumer information in order for their students to remain eligible for state financial aid.

Among other things, states including Texas offer so-called “gainful employment” figures, which measure whether graduates’ incomes in particular fields are enough to repay the debt they rack up to pay for their degrees. When the federal government set out to do the same thing, the principal association of for-profit colleges sued to stop it, and while the government has prevailed in court, the colleges promise to appeal.

The surprises some four-year institutions might be sensitive about include this: Students with associates’ degrees in some fields from community colleges make more money than their counterparts with bachelors’ degrees from four-year colleges and universities, even 10 years after graduation.

Texas, which has been in the vanguard of this work, also tracks individual students through its education system to accurately measure their success in a process known as “student-unit recordkeeping.” The federal government has been blocked from doing this after lobbying of Congress by groups mainly representing private, nonprofit colleges and universities, some of which fear being put at a disadvantage if precise measures of their graduation rates are made public.

Related: Colleges appeal to Congress to cut regulations they say drive up costs

The congressional ban on student-unit recordkeeping, which legislators including Republican Senator and presidential hopeful Marco Rubio have now proposed repealing, is one reason the federal government “is failing to produce the types of information that contemporary students, policymakers, and institutions need to make informed decisions,” the nonpartisan Institute for Higher Education Policy concluded in September. That’s because the feds are forced to estimate such things as graduation rates using far less exact computations than they could by following individual students through the process.

But not only is Texas using it; it and other states including Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Tennessee, Virginia, and Washington are going far beyond what the new College Scorecard does, by publicly reporting such things as salaries of graduates, by major and institution, culled from records listing the earnings of employees whose companies pay for state unemployment insurance. And while universities and colleges complain these figures are also unreliable, since those records don’t track students who move out of state or who work for the government, states are now reaching across borders to improve their accuracy.

“Academics hate this. University presidents hate this. And to some extent they’re justified, because the data need work,” said Mark Schneider, a former head of the National Center for Education Statistics who as a vice president of the American Institutes for Research has been an advocate for providing income figures. “But there’s no such thing as 100 percent accurate information. We’re giving people fundamental advice about the likely outcomes of specific programs at particular universities. And consumers, who are spending tons of money — they should know this.”

Related: The $150 million question—what does federal regulation really cost colleges?

Participating states now can share their graduates’ wage data through something called the Wage Record Interchange System, coordinated by the state of Maryland. That allows them to track alumni who move away. Four states — Hawaii, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington — swap even more statistics through an exchange run by the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, or WICHE, which hopes to expand this collaboration to 10 states. It’s already helped increase by 7 percent the proportion of graduates the states are following, and what they earn. (The WICHE initiative is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which also funds The Hechinger Report.)

Connecticut, Hawaii, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, Oregon, Rhode Island, Texas, and Utah are working together to measure something else the federal government doesn’t: what exactly university graduates have learned, in something called the Multi-State Collaborative to Advance Learning Outcomes Assessment. And while the main push is to help universities identify and correct their weaknesses, “The other side is the consumer side, and can this information help a consumer, and I think there is potential for that,” said Sandra Bailey, director of assessment at the Oregon Institute of Technology, who is involved in the project.

Even as the fight rages on in Washington over rating colleges, there’s been little controversy in the states already providing the same information, and more. “Many states have been doing this for a decade, and nobody’s died,” Schneider said wryly.

That’s precisely because, among other reasons, they’ve been at this for a while. States including Texas also give institutions the chance to explain variations in the figures they report — that, at one school, for example, a hurricane affected enrollment.

Related: Billions in Pell dollars go to students who never graduate

The federal government, meanwhile, is operating separately from the states in its long-running quest to provide consumer data, and is compiling its own information for the Scorecard and other tools using different, and often less dependable, sources.

“The federal government can learn some lessons from states in terms of how best to provide data and what data to make available,” said Robert Kelchen, an assistant professor of higher education at Seton Hall University who studies college accountability.

That doesn’t mean the information is always easy to find and understand. While some states illustrate the figures they collect with glitzy graphics, others put them onto websites that are dense and unreadable. One of the websites in Texas that provides statistics has so many of them that officials are working on ways to scale it back.

Still, said Mary Fulton, a senior policy analyst at the Education Commission of the States, “Even if it’s not reported in a nice, clean, easy way, it’s reported.”

And while the debate about someday providing more information like this drags on in D.C., said Schneider, in the states, “It’s not going to happen. It is happening.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about higher education.

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