Ed Department Officials Say Their Focus is on Better College Data, Less Regulation

Education Dive

Dive Brief:

  • Two senior U.S. Education Department officials told journalists Monday at an event in Las Vegas that the federal agency under Secretary Betsy DeVos wants to make more and better data available to students considering college, while continuing to prioritize the kind of deregulation that has characterized the current administration’s approach to higher ed governance.
  • “We do not think it’s the role of the federal government to make this decision [of whether a specific college is worth attending] on behalf of students,” said Diane Auer Jones, the department’s top higher ed official, adding that federal student aid, state authorizing bodies and accreditors will continue to be the primary sources of accountability for the industry.
  • She said that in recent years, regulations “have driven [colleges] to a one-size-fits-all model” and that streamlining and clarifying the rules could give institutions that want to explore new learning models the space to do so.

Dive Insight:

The higher education industry is not only weighing what kind of data to share with potential students and their families but also how extensive it should be.

For this year’s “best college” rankings, U.S. News & World Report dropped acceptance rates and added social mobility measures for low-income students. The list is incredibly popular among college applicants and their families, and colleges — however critical they may be of such rankings — are known to tout their place on the list.

But some argued that U.S. News’ addition distorted the fact that while top-20 colleges offer significant financial support for disadvantaged students, they don’t enroll that many of them. That can make an institution seem like it’s doing more for low-income students than it actually is. And it led to little turnover among the list leaders in the 2019 version from previous years.

The Education Department’s College Scorecard aims to be a more transparent data source for prospective students. The tool launched in 2015 to help prospective students compare key metrics from colleges, including annual costs, graduation rates and typical salaries. However, Auer Jones, along with Mark Schneider, director of the Education Department’s Institute of Education Sciences, said during the Education Writers Association event the tool is struggling to make inroads with consumers.

Updates planned for the online tool include the addition of data on graduate and professional degrees as well as the ability to compare like institutions that serve similar student populations, particularly locally.

The department is working with Google to prioritize the College Scorecard information in search, and officials expect third-party groups to turn the dataset — which they admit favors researchers and policymakers — into a tool consumers can use to evaluate colleges.

So far, much of the data collected and shared in higher ed occurs at the institutional level. The proposed College Data Transparency Act, which has earned bipartisan support, aims to improve transparency around student-level data collection. However, proposals for a student-unit data system have drawn criticism over privacy concerns including misuse by the federal government.