What The College Transparency Act May Mean for Higher Ed

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Dr. Robert Kelchen, professor of higher education at the University of Tennessee KnoxvilleDr. Robert Kelchen, professor of higher education at the University of Tennessee KnoxvilleLast week, the U.S. House of Representatives approved the long-awaited, bipartisan College Transparency Act (CTA) as an amendment to the America COMPETES Act, a larger bill that the House passed and now awaits Senate approval.

Experts and advocates stress that the CTA would gather more comprehensive student data, including by race, to better identify inequities and close those gaps.

“Right now, we have student outcome information only for limited groups—and that’s because we have federal data limitations,” said Dr. Robert Kelchen, a professor of higher education at the University of Tennessee Knoxville. “For example, in the College Scorecard tool, we can have information about post-college earnings by family income or if you’re a first-generation graduate. But we don’t have information about earnings or student loan debt by race.”

This data blind spot makes it harder to ensure higher education is serving all students fairly and equitably, added Kelchen. But CTA would instead require colleges and universities to collect and file data to the U.S. Department of Education (ED) on student enrollment, transfer, persistence, and completion across all programs and degrees. The data would also be disaggregated by demographics, such as race and ethnicity, gender, and age.

“This bill is as American as apple pie,” said Craig Lindwarm, vice president for governmental affairs at the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU), a research, policy, and advocacy organization dedicated to public universities in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. “It is about the transparency that should be expected in this country to ensure students and families are informed about colleges and universities.”

Under the CTA, ED would additionally share limited data at times with other federal agencies, such as the Internal Revenue Service. This data would be used to calculate postgraduate outcomes, including earnings and career prospects.

The CTA has been attached to the America COMPETES Act, which would allocate billions of dollars to bolster U.S. research to compete with China, particularly in STEM. But the Senate’s version of the COMPETES Act does not include the CTA provisions.

“In terms of getting this through the Senate, to me, that’s anyone’s guess because the House and Senate have different versions of the legislation,” said Kelchen. “If the Senate likes their version better, they may choose to keep their version even if they’re happy with some of the CTA provisions.”

CTA is presently co-sponsored by 70 House members as well as 34 Senate members. Senators Bill Cassidy R-LA, Elizabeth Warren D-MA, Tim Scott R-SC, and Sheldon Whitehouse D-RI are among CTA’s lead cosponsors who introduced the bill.

CTA has been endorsed by nearly 150 organizations that represent students, higher education institutions, employers, workforce and community development groups, veterans, and civil rights advocates. Like APLU, the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP), a research and advocacy organization focused on postsecondary education, has been pushing for years for better data collection on student outcomes.

“As our nation continues to navigate the disruption caused by the COVID-19 public health and economic crisis, the need for the reforms proposed in CTA has never been more urgent,” said Mamie Voight, IHEP’s president and CEO. “Students deserve to know which institutions will provide them with the best return on investment. Policymakers should be equipped to target resources to promote student success and scale effective interventions. And institutions and employers should be able to enhance opportunities to build a stronger, more dynamic workforce and to drive an equitable economic recovery for all.”

The State Higher Education Executive Officers Association (SHEEO), a nonprofit focused on higher education policy, has also been making the better-data case since early 2005. Dr. Tom Harnisch, vice president for government relations at SHEEO, agreed with Lindwarm and Voight on the significance of the legislation.

“There’s a lot to like with the College Transparency Act, and we’re excited that it has gotten this far,” said Harnisch. “Much more work needs to be done to secure its passage, but lawmakers have taken a big step forward. Getting this act passed will improve accountability for student success for all students—and it will provide better consumer information to prospective students and other stakeholders. So together, this will lead to a better functioning higher education marketplace.”

To Kelchen, there are two main reasons why CTA did not advance sooner despite bipartisan support over the past several years. One is simply that not a lot of legislation has been able to make it through both chambers. The other is that when Republicans controlled the House, a few key leaders opposed the act, citing privacy concerns. Kelchen noted, however, that the government already has a large amount of information on students who receive federal financial aid.

Kelchen also pointed out that CTA could end up helping colleges “from an administrative burden perspective.” Currently, institutions have to provide detailed information through the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), the federal government’s core postsecondary education data collection program.

“But colleges and universities have to do all the calculations themselves,” said Kelchen. “And it may very well be easier for colleges to send the federal government a dataset rather than to sit there and do the computations themselves.”

Lindwarm added that the CTA would provide more data on student veterans as well.

But with the Senate poised to soon begin selecting a new Justice for the U.S. Supreme Court, it is unclear how the CTA provisions will fare in the months ahead. Still, many advocates like Lindwarm are hopeful.

“We’ve made a real concerted push on this bill in both chambers for a number of years, and this is the best opportunity we’ve had since the bill was first introduced,” he said. “APLU member institutions and our partners are certainly going to be making our case as this moves forward.”

Rebecca Kelliher can be reached at rkelliher@diverseeducation.com