Student Right to Know Before You Go Act

As many students ponder whether to go and how to pay for college, Congress is considering legislation to give them more comparable data — and maybe continue low interest rates on student loans.Oregon Senator Ron Wyden is capturing national headlines for his push for more sunshine on government snooping. But he also wants more sunshine to help students assess college programs for graduation rates, projected earnings and debt loads before they enroll.

The Student Right to Know Before You Go Act has been introduced with bipartisan sponsors in the U.S. House and Senate. Democrat Wyden is teamed up in the Senate with Florida GOP Senator Marco Rubio.

Much as he has on the issue of personal privacy in the face of massive government surveillance, Wyden is pressing for more transparency. "There's no question everyone needs access to higher education," Wyden says, "but it's time to bring value into the equation. This bipartisan legislation would allow people to understand where they can expect their educational choices to take them in the real world."

The idea behind the legislation is to make data available online in an easily accessible format. According to a statement by Wyden and the bill's cosponsors, "Using information already gathered, the bill would allow student records to be matched with employment and earnings data.

The result would be highly accurate and informative and finally provide students and their families the opportunity and tools needed for a more complete picture of the value of their education.

The U.S. Department of Education currently makes available some institutional data through its College Scorecard, but Wyden and his colleagues call the information "extremely limited." Under their legislation, much more information would be compiled:

  • Average post-graduate earnings would be broken down by program of study, credential received, educational institution and state of employment.

  • Graduation rates would be made available for first-time, full-time, part-time and transfer students.

  • Currently available institution-specific information on financial aid and federal grants would be continued, but broken down by student type.

  • Data would be broken out between students taking courses who seek a degree or certificate and those who aren't.

  • Data would be made available showing the average federal loan debt for graduating students with varying degrees and certificates, as well as for students who don't complete degree or certificate-issuing programs.

  • Student transfer rates would be tracked by educational sector (e.g. public colleges and universities, non-profit private colleges and for-profit colleges). Student success also would be tracked for completion of degrees or certificates initially sought.

  • Data would be displayed showing the performance of students who receive Pell grants, Stafford loans and GI Bill benefits.

More student disclosure has been on the minds of other public officials. Oregon legislators explored legislation this session to create a student fact sheet with comparable data from all educational sectors. It was patterned largely on data already provided by for-profit colleges in compliance with federal laws and national accreditation standards.

The legislation is timely as students ponder the value of getting higher education, despite overwhelming evidence that students with postsecondary degrees and certificates earn more of their lifetimes. Students and their parents are fretting over the increasing cost of a college education and the debt loads needed to pay for it. Policymakers are fretting over the level of student loan defaults.

And as this conversation buzzes along, Congress is slow to take up the issue of higher interest rates on student loans, which will go into effect without congressional action.

Keeping interest rates low for college students receives bipartisan support. However, the two parties remain polarized on the path forward. Republican members want to avoid government subsidies and instead pursue a market-driven approach. Democrats defend government-supported interest rates and instead argue for closing tax loopholes to fund the lower rates.

The Senate held side-by-side votes on the two partisan measures. Despite efforts from young borrowers across the country during the Student Debt Day rally, both plans failed to receive the 60-vote threshold needed to end debate and pass the legislation. Thus, another Washington-manufactured crisis will be upon us by month's end.