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  • Issue Briefing: Reauthorization of the Higher Education Act

    While the Higher Education Act (HEA) has many components, the aspect that concerns NACE the most would be any changes to the reporting of graduate outcomes. The tracking and reporting of graduate outcomes has been a core issue with NACE for a number of years. In 2012, NACE issued a position paper that emphasized the importance of tracking outcomes and placed the primary responsibility for doing so on the individual higher education institution. However, these institutions face considerable difficulty in obtaining comprehensive information about the status of their graduates once they leave the institution, and there is considerable interest among government officials, parents, students, and the general public for knowing how well students fare once they graduate with a college degree.

    Recently, legislation has been introduced to amend the HEA to allow for more effective tracking of graduate outcomes. The College Transparency Act of 2017 (S. 1121), sponsored by Senators Hatch (R-UT), Warren (D-MA), Cassidy (R-LA), and Whitehouse (D-RI), would lift the current ban on the establishment of a federal data system that would track employment and graduation outcomes of college students. Popularly known as a “student unit card” system, outcomes would be tracked by melding data from a number of federal databases. Individual student data would be reported to the U.S. Department of Education and then combined with individual-level data from another federal database such as the one held by the Internal Revenue Service or the Social Security Administration.

    Potential Advantages to the Federal Student Unit Card System

    A federal student unit card system could provide advantages, including:

    • More complete outcomes data: NACE has seen tremendous progress in the collection of outcomes data by member institutions since it instituted the Standards and Protocols for the Collection and Reporting of Outcomes Data in 2014. The number of schools reporting data has grown to nearly 360, representing more than a half million graduates from the Class of 2016. However, this still represents less than one-third of all bachelor’s degree graduates from that class and even smaller percentages of associate degree and advanced degree students. Whether we look at the data collected by the individual schools, by a private third party, or by the state and federal governments, currently there are considerable gaps in the outcomes information. A student unit card system would go a long way to correcting for this missing data by being able to track every student and matching that student’s educational history with his or her full employment outcomes (job, job category, and earned income).
    • More valid data: Most of the outcomes data collected by schools and by third parties are gathered through surveys of graduates. All surveys are subject to respondent error in the reporting. This is due to some respondents simply misinterpreting what is being asked or not wanting to report truthfully. Rather than relying on a graduate’s response to a survey, melding data on the individual’s verified educational background with verifiable employment and income reporting would provide a more valid picture of graduate outcomes.
    • Deeper career outcomes information: Current outcomes information is limited to the graduate’s first point of employment or further education after receiving the degree. Typically, schools lose track of or contact with most of their graduates shortly after graduation. Therefore, data collected well after graduation have a greatly diminished number of respondents, and the aggregate information suffers from a corresponding drop in validity as a result. The student unit card would enable the government to track and report outcomes data at mid-career or even later. Such data would be extremely valuable in evaluating any linkage between academic program and career success. Current data linking outcomes and academic programs may be misleading because it distinctly advantages career-oriented majors that are focused on developing specific skill sets for specific jobs.

    Concerns About Federal Government Tracking of Outcomes

    Traditionally, NACE has expressed two major concerns related to the establishment of a federal student unit card system. In addition, the stated output in S. 1121 raises a third concern about the legislation.

    • Individual privacy: NACE, along with other higher education associations, has concerns regarding information about individual graduates remaining private. The College Transparency Act has a number of provisions aimed at addressing this concern. It forbids the sale of any of the data, prohibits access to the data by law enforcement, and strictly limits the amount of personally identifiable information in the database. However, in an age when cybersecurity is under constant threat, individual privacy remains a concern. Is this concern enough to warrant a complete ban on this form of data collection? Given the relative openness of individual lives in the Internet/social media age, a blanket rejection of collecting useful personal information in the name of protecting privacy carries a bit of diminished legitimacy.
    • Ranking/rating schools: NACE has always opposed any ranking or rating of schools based on outcomes data. The original intent behind the development of the College Scorecard in the Obama Administration was to eventually develop a rating system that would be tied to federal funding. The College Transparency Act forbids the ranking/rating of schools based on the outcomes information collected. However, outcomes data for individual schools is intended to be published. The argument is that this is important information for parents and students to know when choosing a school. There are two problems with this argument. First, if the average salary of graduates for individual institutions is published, someone will inevitably rank the institutions from first to last based on average salary; ranking is inevitable if individual school data are published. Second, the choice of school for an individual is a complex decision involving many factors. Outcomes information can be a valuable single component in that complex decision. However, for those data to be truly useful in separating the choice of one school as opposed to the next, the outcomes information would need to be disaggregated along demographic lines to such an extent that it may very well compromise individual privacy. Outcomes information is better made public in aggregates rather than for individual schools. Significant knowledge would still be available to the public about the types of programs and the classes of schools that generate outcomes of value to the prospective student. School-level data can be made available to the individual institutions, which can then use the data to benchmark their own performance and make adjustments to curricula to achieve improved outcomes.
    • Shallow career outcomes information: As stated previously, one of the great values posed by the student unit card is the ability to track graduates into mid-career and beyond. However, S. 1121 is not clear if that is the way the data will be developed. The bill’s text reads:

      “Post-collegiate outcomes for all students, including earnings, employment, and further education, by program of study and credential level and as measured—(I) immediately after leaving postsecondary education; and (II) at later time intervals appropriate to the credential sought and earned.”

      From the bill’s text, it is not at all clear whether a bachelor’s degree graduate’s outcome will be tracked simply immediately after graduation or whether the graduate’s outcomes will be reported five to 10 years after the individual is in the work force. If the intent is to simply report outcomes immediately after graduation, then the value-added by the legislation over current data collection efforts by the schools themselves is not likely to be worth the risks to individual privacy, and hazardous school selections made possible by federal data collection and reporting.

    NACE has not taken a position on the College Transparency Act of 2017. It is possible that as the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act proceeds, the College Transparency Act will receive significant attention and possible inclusion within the reauthorization. NACE would like your comments on the intent of the bill and its components so that the association can better represent the sentiments of the NACE membership in terms of commenting on the bill. Please provide your feedback to advocacy@naceweb.org.

    Posted November 2, 2017