Michael Itzkowitz is the former Director of the College Scorecard under the Obama Administration. He currently works as an education consultant and serves as a Senior Fellow at the think tank Third Way, located in Washington, D.C.
The Trump administration took some meaningful steps to improve the information that students can find before they embark on going to college, one of the most expensive endeavors they will ever undertake.
Unfortunately, many actions taken by the outgoing administration left students less informed and even steer them toward institutions that may ultimately leave them worse off.
As the Obama administration’s Director of the College Scorecard — the federal government’s main college search site — I offer three suggested steps that a Biden administration can take to help students make better college choices, some of which will fix past mistakes, and others of which will continue to build upon improvements that were made over the past few years.
1. Improve college options
College choice is simply easier when there are better options from which to choose.
That’s why reinstating the gainful employment regulations, which were repealed by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, is a must for the Biden administration. Putting these back in place will work twofold.
First, it will better ensure that students are able to earn enough to reasonable pay down their debt regardless of what college program they enter. This weeds out shoddy programs, many which have been shown to leave their graduates earning below the poverty line.
Next, it will provide more information on how well students perform in a program before they enroll. And if a program shows troubling results, at least students and families will be aware before spending their hard-earned cash (and taxpayer dollars). Having this little piece of information upfront can help students weigh their postsecondary options more clearly.
2. Make adjustments to the College Scorecard
The next thing the Biden administration needs to do is fix the College Scorecard and get it into the hands of more students.
While prospective students can now gain a better understanding of the expected debt and earnings that various fields of study might deliver at different institutions (yay!), the Trump administration has taken steps to feature mostly short-term, for-profit institutions at the top of the website, many which tout former students salaries less than a typical high school graduate.
This is an easy fix, as the Biden administration can feature schools that show at least some earnings premium at the top of students’ searches, while pushing those that leave students financially worse off to the back of the list. They can also reintroduce some outcomes on student debt that were removed by Secretary Betsy DeVos, such as student default rates at each institution.
And while more data is good, it only works if students are able to access it. Approximately one million users visited the College Scorecard last year — which is great — yet, it’s only a sliver of the students who apply to and enroll in college.
One way to address this is to better incorporate the outcomes on the Scorecard into the main way students apply for federal student aid. Approximately 20 million students access the online Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) every year.
By providing students with an additional information nudge on how well their potential institution compares to others before they apply, the incoming administration has the ability to reach exponentially more students in an easy and nonintrusive manner — and equip them to spend their time and money where it will really pay off.
3. Shine a light on the outcomes of college accreditors
Accreditation serves as the stamp of approval that students look for when searching for a college.
But if accreditors continue to provide this stamp to institutions that leave most students leave without a degree, with low earnings, and with unmanageable debt, they’re no longer performing the watchdog function with which they’ve been tasked.
Unfortunately, the Trump administration has hidden the outcomes of institutions from the main committee that’s responsible for saying whether an accreditor is good enough to be recognized by the federal government. Without knowing how well an accredited institution is serving its students, that body is forced to make these decisions with one eye closed.
President Biden can fix this. Before any accreditor is approved, this committee should be provided with information on the institutions it oversees so it’s able to ask the tough questions about whether its actions are actually leading to student success.
While there’s more that can be done, these three steps would be a great start, ensuring that students have better information before they enroll in higher education and better options to choose from.