01:14 - Source: CNN
Is college worth the cost?

Editor’s Note: Bill Cassidy is a doctor and Republican senator from Louisiana on the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee. F. King Alexander is the president of Louisiana State University. The views expressed here are solely those of the authors. View more opinion articles on CNN.

CNN  — 

Data increasingly drives the modern world. From picking your seat on an airplane to buying a car to purchasing a product online, consumers are able to read reviews and examine every detail before making a purchase. There’s a wealth of consumer information at our fingertips.

Bill Cassidy
F. King Alexander

Why is it so different when it comes to selecting a college or pursuing a certain degree – an investment meant to last a lifetime? We can and must do better.

As many American kids return to school this month, college preparation and beginning the application process will be of primary concern to a whole host of families.

For many prospective college students, it is nearly impossible to determine whether the cost of college is actually worth it. They know they are committed to completing their studies, but they aren’t sure if what they’re buying will yield the results they’re seeking. Signing on the dotted line seems more and more like a leap of faith as costs increase. This is because federal law imposes a ban on the US Department of Education’s ability to collect student-level information, also called student-unit records, such as completion rates and graduate earnings that would help these prospective students and parents make the best decision for them.

Legislation pending in Congress, the College Transparency Act (CTA), would fix this by repealing the ban and creating a secure, privacy-protected, postsecondary student-level data network that will provide more accurate, timely, and complete information on student outcomes. This network would be managed by the National Center for Education Statistics, which has an extensive record of protecting student data, and would include college costs, enrollment, retention, completion, and employment across all majors. Figuring out whether a university’s price tag is based on perceived prestige or actual outcomes would no longer be such a guessing game. Instead of a leap of faith, individuals could make informed, data-driven decisions that best fit their unique situation and goals.

Investing in higher education and choosing the right institution is not an easy decision for students and families to make. Nearly 100 American universities now charge over $50,000 a year. That’s only $5,000 less than what the median American household makes in an entire year. Meanwhile, Americans have $1.5 trillion in student loan debt, more than their debt from credit cards and auto loans.

It is perfectly reasonable for students and families to want to know their likely return on investment before making a major life and financial decision. Unfortunately, accurate and complete data on college outcomes is withheld from consumers, and that’s wrong. Students and families deserve to have the information necessary to choose the best college program that fits their needs.

Currently, only a small portion of data collected from higher education institutions is made available to consumers through websites such as the Department of Education’s College Scorecard and the National Student Clearinghouse. Further, the data being collected paints an incomplete picture, because only first-time, full-time students who graduate from the same college at which they started are counted. Obviously, this leaves out a large number of non-traditional students, including those who attend college part-time, those who transfer to another college, and those who do not take federal financial aid.

Individual colleges and universities would benefit too. The data would help them determine what happens to the nearly 50% of students who leave prior to graduating, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. The institutions could then improve the products and experiences they offer, helping more students succeed.

We are working together to build support for this important legislation. It is picking up momentum in the Senate, with seven Republican and seven Democrat cosponsors. There is also strong support among higher education institutions and officials for the College Transparency Act. The Association of Public & Land Grant Institutions (APLU), which represents more than 230 universities across the nation including Louisiana State University, has advocated for CTA to be included in the Higher Education Act reauthorization efforts.

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    By making more data available to potential students and their families, the College Transparency Act will strengthen the academic marketplace and make it more navigable to all higher education consumers.