Families, Lawmakers Want to Know More About What Becomes of College Students

Melissa Korn
Apr 8 2017

Efforts to offer a fuller picture are under way, but fixes so far have been piecemeal

As tuition costs continue to rise and states rethink their investments in higher education, colleges are under increasing pressure from prospective students and lawmakers to disclose outcomes like on-time graduation rates and earnings potential for particular majors.

The information now available is often incomplete—or even outright wrong. But efforts are under way to change that, even if progress has been piecemeal.

One example of fuzzy math: The main nationwide graduation rate published by the Education Department, currently just shy of 60% for bachelor’s degrees completed in six years, only considers students enrolled in college for the first time, and on a full-time basis.

That leaves out students like Ari DeAundre Jones, a neuroscience major at Georgia State University who expects to finish his undergraduate degree this spring. Mr. Jones spent two years at Temple University, then enlisted in the U.S. Navy before landing at Georgia State.

He is far from alone. Almost two-thirds of recent graduates attended at least two schools before getting their bachelor’s degrees, and nearly 40% of undergraduate students now go to college on a part-time basis, according to the National Student Clearinghouse, a nonprofit that provides schools with administrative services like degree verification.

Mr. Jones, 24 years old, said he knew there were “gray areas with nontraditional students” when looking at data on outcomes. He said he would like to see more detailed graduation rates for particular demographics, like racial minorities or low-income students, as well as information on college paths for military veterans.

Such specifics are important to help families discern the difference between attending a school where most film majors actually land jobs in Hollywood and those where graduates move back home with mom and dad. Similarly, reviewing data on outcomes for all students, not just a small subset, can help policy makers determine where to funnel public funds.

“Prospective students and their families have no idea that they’re looking at just a fraction of student information, and it’s misleading,” said Jeff Lieberson, vice president for public affairs at the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities.

A slew of nonprofit organizations, states and even departments within the federal government are trying to offer more comprehensive measures of success. They are taking into account part-time, minority and transfer students; considering more qualitative measures of success; and even starting to track students who move across state lines.

Last year the University of Texas System announced a plan to work with the U.S. Census Bureau to track what happens to graduates who move out of state. And an accrediting agency that serves as a gatekeeper to federal funds for schools in California, Hawaii and some U.S. island territories now requires schools to submit details about how many students graduate and how many credits they earn along the way. The dashboard reveals that some students take more classes than necessary, increasing their educational costs.

But such initiatives often are crippled by red tape and geographic limitations, as well as by some schools’ reluctance to share unflattering information about how well they serve their students. The Clearinghouse, for example, which collects data from schools that enroll more than 98% of students nationwide, runs comprehensive reports on student outcomes only by agreeing not to share school-specific results publicly.

The Education Department has extensive information on enrollments, retention, student-loan-repayment rates and more. And the Labor Department and other agencies track employment and earnings. The federal government shares some of that via the College Scorecard, first released in 2015 and updated annually.

But nearly a decade ago, after fervent lobbying by private, nonprofit colleges who cited privacy concerns, Congress banned the creation of a federal system linking data on individual students that could show, for example, earnings outcomes for all psychology majors from a particular university.

Republicans have expressed concern about the regulatory burden institutions already endure, and higher-education policy experts say they’re unlikely to overturn the ban anytime soon.

As a result, those interested in making data-driven decisions on what school to attend or how to shape state funding policies have to resort to workarounds. Options include comparing individual institutions’ incomplete outcomes reports or using newly developed tools like the Student Achievement Measure, which captures more information but on relatively few schools.

“The landscape has changed a lot in the last two years,” said Amy Laitinen, director for higher-education policy at the New America Foundation, a left-leaning think tank. “All of these communities recognize the black box we’ve had on student outcomes is unacceptable.”

Urgency has grown as states pursue performance-based funding models tying public dollars to metrics like how many graduates entered in-demand fields.

“They can’t mind what they can’t measure,” said Jennifer Engle, a senior program officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has provided funding for a number of college-completion and data-collection initiatives.

At least 25 states now track at least some students from school through their careers, using school data, wage records and unemployment-insurance claims. But few gather employment and earnings information for all former students and only a handful, including Virginia and Indiana, share their findings with the public.

Even those databases are limited, since students don’t always stay put and may disappear across state lines.

The Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, a Colorado-based nonprofit, piloted a program linking postsecondary and workforce data across Hawaii, Idaho, Oregon and Washington, and expects to relaunch the information exchange with at least 10 states this fall.

A group of higher-education associations, including the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, created Student Achievement Measure, a tool that tracks not just what share of students graduate within six years, but also how many are still enrolled in their original school or another institution, or have graduated elsewhere.

Student Achievement Measure officials estimate that, by also capturing information on part-time and transfer students, they can track outcomes for about 608,000 more students than the federal graduation rate covers.