Smart Legislation Could Take the Guessing Game Out of Higher Education

The proposed bill would create a federal database that creates a clearer picture of what to expect after graduation.

As you look around Boston during the next few weeks and find a sea of mortar boards and graduation gowns, it’s worth wondering what, exactly, the class of 2013 will accomplish in the coming years (one imagines it involves lots of selfies, if Time magazine has any say in the matter). Universities like to tout the outstanding work of their esteemed graduates—pick up any alumni magazine to find out more about the startup businesses, service projects, or groundbreaking research of their former students. But what if we actually had a picture of what the entire student body of every university accomplished after graduation? Wouldn’t it be helpful for students applying to colleges to know the average salary an English major makes five years after graduating? Or how much debt a student takes on after they leave campus? New bipartisan legislation announced last week, sponsored by Senators Mark Warner (D-VA), Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Marco Rubio (R-FL), aims to do that and more. And it’s a smart idea.

Called the  Student Right to Know Before You Go Act, the bill would essentially work to assign a number to students when they begin the process of applying to college, and create a federal database that tracks their progress throughout the entirety of their education. With the data collected, colleges would be better able to give potential students (and their parents) a clearer portrait of what to expect when you matriculate. Inside Higher Ed offers a bit of a breakdown:

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.

Those other benchmarks include tracking the number of students who go to on to higher education, measuring student transfer rates, and calculating the average federal loan debt after graduation. And it would also help keep better tabs on those students who often get lost in the shuffle as they transfer from two- to four-year programs, or leave college to work and return several years later. Knowing more about all students will help give us a better picture of how we work toward success, and might help us answer the question that’s been raised over and over again in the past few years (including by yours truly): Is college worth it?

Of course, creating a massive database tracking individuals doesn’t just happen without raising the hackles of civil libertarians and privacy advocates, who worry that gathering this information puts our personal safety at risk, or worse, will bring the “command and control mentality” of No Child Left Behind policies to higher education. But that’s hooey. The more information we offer students about colleges, the more likely they will make informed decisions about investing in their education. If we want American college students to be intelligent, critical thinkers, we need to give them the tools that enable them to make smart choices. This legislation can help.

The Student Right to Know Before You Go Act Summary by Mark Warner