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A Holiday Gift from Eric Cantor: Better College Data

Published:  December 5, 2012
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On November 7th, the day after the Presidential election, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) sent a letter to his Republican colleagues expressing disappointment with the outcome, but also the belief that there was room for Republicans and Democrats to “act to bridge our differences and deliver results.” Among the short list that Cantor laid out was the following: “Making it easier for parents and students to make informed decisions about what type of post-high school education is right for them.”

That’s right. The day after the most expensive Presidential campaign in American’s history, amidst deep divisions about the fiscal cliff, taxes, spending, and social issues, education data made the legislative “to do” list.

Both political parties spent much of the past year talking about the need for better information in the face of skyrocketing college costs. President Obama proposed a college scorecard with comparable, easy-to-understand indicators of college value. The GOP platform called for greater transparency around “completion rates, repayment rates, future earnings, and other factors that may affect their (college) decisions.” The message was clear and consistent—students and families need better information.

But we can’t get students and families the information they need unless we have the information they need. And right now we don’t. We have a jumble of clunky, uncoordinated, and incomplete federal and state data systems, each of which captures some part of the picture (and in many cases information not really relevant to the picture), but do not work together to create a whole picture. The fragmented these systems don’t talk to each other and, therefore, cannot answer basic—and critical—questions.  Questions like whether students at particular institutions graduate, whether they get jobs, and whether they can comfortably pay back their loans. And let’s not even ask how students in specific subgroups are doing. Yet students, families, and taxpayers continue to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on higher education.

The problem was eloquently summed up by Virginia Foxx (R-NC), Chair of the House Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Training, at a hearing on college data held just six weeks before the election:

We have so much data and we seem to know so little. What a tragedy for all the money that we’re spending in this country.

There’s not a lot that Republicans and Democrats agree on these days, and even less that they agree to act on. Yet Foxx sees the tragedy of higher education data, the Obama administration and Congressional Democrats have introduced measures to improve how students and families access college information, and Cantor has put the issue on his to-do list. Consensus is rare in Washington, and we can’t afford to waste it. The Department of Education, Congressional leaders, and other stakeholders must articulate the key questions they want to be able to answer to help students and families make informed decisions. Then they need to work to ensure that we have the data to answer the questions.

The election is over. Now, let’s govern.

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