Democratic and Republican policymakers have pushed for better consumer information about colleges and universities, but our new report on an effort to provide Virginia high school students with information on higher education outcomes raises questions about whether consumer-facing websites, like the US Department of Education’s College Scorecard, will have the impact policymakers expect.
The Scorecard began reporting information on average earnings by college less than two years ago and does not drill down to the program (academic-major) level, an important limitation given that some fields pay better than others. For our study, we launched a similar website for Virginia colleges that presents data on academic-major level earnings and on net price, but found that it had no measurable effect on which college or field students enrolled in after high school. And there was tepid interest in the tool among schools and students in the first place.
The results align with other recent studies of information-only interventions using earnings or financial aid data. These studies find that when students are given information without other supports (such as application fee waivers or assistance completing paperwork), there is likely little to no effect on college enrollment.
These results do not, however, mean federal policymakers should abandon efforts to produce and disseminate information on higher education outcomes. Continuing to collect these data at the federal level is important. But policymakers should consider whether they are using the best channels and targeting the right audiences.
Meeting applicants where they are
New higher education consumer information tools like ours are entering a crowded landscape. Many high schools have well-developed procedures to help students navigate the college selection process. Students at the high schools where we tested our tool said they had heard of our site, but rarely used it because it was similar to other websites they were more familiar with. Efforts to increase the use of labor market data may be more successful if they work through the platforms schools and students already use, such as Big Future, Cappex, and Naviance.
The measure could also be part of the problem. Average postgraduate earnings—the metric reported by our site and by College Scorecard—has intuitive appeal, but it may be difficult for prospective college students to factor this information into their decisionmaking without additional context. Students must weigh this information against other important variables, such as graduation rates and net price. Future consumer information efforts should consider how to provide that context in a meaningful way for different types of students.
Thinking beyond consumer information
Policymakers should also remember that publishing detailed information has value beyond influencing students’ decisions. These data are valuable for monitoring the outcomes of colleges and universities. Efforts to protect consumers from low-quality colleges and ensure that taxpayer dollars are wisely spent can benefit from better data on labor market outcomes. And earnings data can also become part of how institutions benchmark themselves against peers, which most already do.
Further, College Scorecard helps advocates and policymakers by providing a consistent, nationwide metric for assessing student outcomes, rather than a patchwork of state-based systems. Program-level data produced by states are not comparable across systems, as each state determines how to calculate mean wages differently (e.g., with or without students who have no earnings or who work part time) and generally cannot track students across state lines.
Improving the tool
Of course, College Scorecard could be strengthened even as it is maintained. Earnings are currently reported at the institution level, but they could be reported at the academic-program level, as we tested in our Virginia study, or at the individual degree level. Such data advances might require more robust data collection, such as the federal student-unit record system proposed by a bipartisan group of senators last month, or through other means.
Our study shows that just providing information on program-level earnings may not change high school students’ decisions on where to go to school. Our test is just one of many, however, that should be done to understand the potential of providing earnings outcomes data in higher education. Policymakers shouldn’t discount the potential of publishing earnings outcome data in higher education. Providing these data is a necessary first step to support consumer choice and a more robust system of accountability for outcomes imposed by policymakers and the market.