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Can data ward off college debt? New strategy focuses on results

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    The University of Washington campus in Seattle on March 18. Tens of millions of Americans are in student debt and the average college senior owes $29,000.

The Department of Education today released a trove of information that shows the average amount of debt incurred by graduates of different academic programs at each college and university in America. This focus on discrete programs, rather than institutions as a whole, is gaining favor among political leaders and could have far-reaching effects.

With anxiety about student debt soaring — billionaire Robert F. Smith made headlines last weekend with his surprise promise to pay off the debts of Morehouse College’s 2019 graduating class — the program-level information has the potential to alter how colleges are funded, regulated and understood by consumers in the marketplace.

Everyone knows that different majors have different economic payoffs. Social workers earn less than chemical engineers. But federal laws that regulate college success don’t account for that. Instead, they average results across the university. People don’t have a good way of seeing how big those differences are within a particular university, let alone comparing programs across universities.

The new, more detailed debt information was created in response to an executive order issued in March by President Donald Trump.

Other lawmakers have called for similar approaches. In February, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate Education Committee and a former university president, gave a speech outlining his plans to revise the federal Higher Education Act. Currently the federal government measures the percentage of borrowers at a given college who pay their loans back. If too many students fail to repay, colleges are barred from receiving federal funds.

Alexander proposed a “new accountability system” based on loan repayment rates for individual programs within colleges. This, said Alexander, “should provide colleges with an incentive to lower tuition and help their students finish their degrees and find jobs so they can repay their loans.”

Both Trump and Alexander, despite their strong criticism of President Barack Obama on education, are following in the footsteps of his regulatory crackdown on for-profit colleges and short-term certificate programs. Rather than evaluate sprawling educational conglomerates based on the average results of hundreds of programs, the Obama rules disqualified specific programs whose graduates didn’t earn enough money to pay back their loans.

Alexander wants to extend scrutiny and accountability to all colleges, but using different measures. The Trump administration wants to replace the Obama rules and penalties with simple transparency of outcomes by program.

In addition, a bipartisan congressional coalition that includes Sens. Joni Ernst and Elizabeth Warren has sponsored the College Transparency Act, which would create more comprehensive program-level data.

The debt information released by the Department of Education is still preliminary, so students should be cautious when using it to choose programs and colleges. But there are other examples of how program-level data could change how we look at higher education. The University of Virginia, for instance, is one of the most prestigious and selective public universities in the nation, with an average freshman SAT score around 1400 and barely a quarter of applicants admitted. But data published by the state’s higher education coordinating body reveals large differences within the university. Some University of Virginia majors earn more than $70,000 or $80,000 three years after graduating, while others are in the $35,000 to $50,000 range. University of Virginia systems engineers, for example, make almost double what environmental science majors earn.

George Mason University, in Fairfax, Virginia., is less prestigious. A former commuter school, it has a typical freshman SAT score under 1200 and accepts about 80% of applicants. On average, George Mason graduates earn less than University of Virginia graduates. But as with Virginia, there are large differences between majors within George Mason, to the point that earnings results at the two universities greatly overlap.

Accountants and civil engineers who graduate from George Mason earn more than $60,000 per year. Psychology and architecture majors who graduate from Virginia earn less than $45,000.

Mark Schneider, a higher education scholar, helped the state of Virginia gather earnings information for each university program. He is now the director of the federal Department of Education’s institute of education sciences, guiding collection of the program-level data called for in Trump’s executive order. The key insight, Schneider says, is that there is usually more variation in earnings results between programs within colleges than between colleges.

If Congress adopts Alexander’s plan, colleges will need to give much closer scrutiny to programs where students borrow large amounts of money and then struggle to land well-paying jobs. Such programs are often overlooked, as Harvard discovered when its graduate theater program ran afoul of the Obama regulations. This could be a sea change in campus administrative culture, which is typically so hands-off that the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill had no idea (this is the most charitable explanation) that one of its departments ran a huge academic fraud operation for 18 years.

The shift to programs could also begin to change the dynamics of the higher education market, which is dominated by institutional reputations, to the point that wealthy families are willing to pay enormous bribes for admission on the strength of brand names alone.

There are still many disagreements and details to resolve. The Trump approach relies on the idea that if students have better information, choices in the higher education market will be enough to ensure quality. But there is little evidence to support this view. Even with program data, students will still be vulnerable to the deceptive marketing and aggressive sales tactics that remain widespread in the for-profit college industry.

The measures matter, too. Alexander’s plan is to evaluate programs based on loan repayment rates. But it isn’t known whether those rates are a good measure of program quality. The Obama method of comparing debt levels to student earnings, by contrast, was so accurate that many colleges pre-emptively shut down their low-performing programs before the sanctions were even applied. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is now working to repeal those regulations.

Policymakers will have to guard against institutional gamesmanship. Poorly performing programs could simply be relabeled. At-risk students could be pushed to not declare a major at all. Program-level regulations probably work best if accompanied by standards that apply to the college as a whole.

Time frames are also important. It makes sense to judge a nine-month-long medical assisting program on whether graduates find jobs as medical assistants. The payoff for bachelor’s degrees, particularly in the liberal arts and humanities, can take longer to manifest. And, of course, higher learning isn’t just a way to get a job. It should guide people toward more enlightened, fulfilling lives.

But while college is about more than money, it can be paid for only with money. With student debt at a record high and with 1 million people defaulting on their college loans every year, it’s not surprising that politicians across the political spectrum want to give students and parents more information about how different programs pay off. When that happens, higher education may never be quite the same.

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