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Diverse Students On Campus

Federal Data Could Help Students Choose a College

Jacob Jackson June 12, 2017

Every year, hundreds of thousands of California high school seniors make significant financial decisions about whether and where to attend college. But students and their families currently have few options when it comes to knowing the financial costs and benefits of attending certain colleges and choosing certain majors.

A new federal bill would allow for a nationwide data system that could provide earnings information by college and major, among other data. The bipartisan bill, called the College Transparency Act, would allow student records from individual colleges to be submitted to the federal government and combined with earnings and financial aid information from the IRS (Internal Revenue Service) and the US Department of Education. Currently, the Higher Education Act prohibits connecting student-level information kept by colleges, such as a student’s enrollment and major, to earnings and aid data kept by federal agencies. This leaves students and parents in the dark as they try to weigh the economic benefits of colleges and majors against the rising costs of attending college.

What could a new federal data system mean for California?

California currently lacks a longitudinal statewide data system that can track students from college to work, and the information that is available to students has limitations. For example, the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office provides the Salary Surfer, a helpful tool that presents salary information on community college graduates by program of study, using a combination of student data and data from the California Employment Development Department. But the Salary Surfer only includes those students who attended a community college and subsequently work in California, there’s no indication of whether students transferred to a four-year college to obtain a bachelor’s degree (which would likely affect earnings), and there’s no campus-level information.

A new federal data system could have some advantages over a state-run system. The market for higher education has become more national, and more Californians are choosing colleges outside of the state. In addition, some graduates of colleges in California leave the state to work, and their earnings can’t be recorded by a state-based system. A comprehensive federal database could help students compare schools across state lines and give a more complete picture of graduates’ earnings, even if they work in another state. Currently, the federal College Scorecard offers a helpful but limited look at earnings. The scorecard only has earnings information for those who receive some sort of federal financial aid and does not show earnings by major.

The proposed data system could fill existing blind spots in California’s databases and the current federal scorecard, providing information across state lines and earnings estimates for both colleges and majors within those colleges. Such a system could help students and parents more accurately weigh the costs and benefits associated with the important and sometimes expensive decision of whether and where to attend college.

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