When Troy Grant was looking at colleges as a prospective student, he had little idea how much they would actually cost, whether certain degrees would lead to good jobs or other basic information that helps young people make one of the most expensive decisions of their lives.
The first in his immediate family to go to college, Grant struggled to understand terms such as “credit hour” and to compare institutions on such things as their graduation rates.
“We had the will, but we had no idea what we were doing,” he said of himself and his family. “We were navigating a process that was foreign to us.”
Grant eventually attended a small college in Nashville, graduating in 2004 and ending up as senior director of college access and success at the Tennessee Higher Education Commission. Years later, he said, more data is available, but some students are still not getting all the information they need to make informed choices.
Now Tennessee is one of several states trying to change that by providing students with more information about graduation rates, annual costs and graduates’ earnings.
With federal data on college costs and outcomes limited in some crucial ways, and colleges and universities themselves often making it hard to find answers, several states have quietly passed or proposed laws requiring that certain information be made available to consumers about what they’ll get for their investment in a higher education.
Legislators in at least seven states considered bills this year that would require agencies to collect and publicize data about graduates’ monthly loan payments, how many are working in jobs that require a degree and other consumer-friendly information about colleges.
Eight states now legally require the collection and distribution of some college information, according to the Data Quality Campaign, a nonprofit organization: Arkansas, Arizona, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia.
The push comes at a time when Americans are increasingly skeptical about the cost of higher education. In a country where only 64 percent of students graduate from college in six years, experts say more transparency can help Americans make better choices about where to attend.
The Tennessee Higher Education Commission, for example, operates a website on which prospective students can browse data about colleges, such as average annual cost by family income and most popular majors, as well as information about state financial aid grants and in-demand careers. The site, CollegeForTN.org, was updated in 2018 after the legislature asked for additional information to be posted publicly.
“We want to give them the content they need in order to make an informed decision about their destination,” Grant said.
States have good reason to want to hold colleges and universities accountable. State and local governments spent $113 billion subsidizing public universities and colleges and providing financial aid in the last fiscal year, according to the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association. Meanwhile, thousands of students are choosing and attending colleges without any idea of the return they can expect on their investment, or even their likelihood of graduating.
“It’s hard to overstate the importance of transparency about cost and outcomes,” said Beth Akers, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. As it is, she said, people who are paying or borrowing to go to college don’t always understand how much they may eventually end up paying.
“At the same time they have very little understanding of where their path in college is likely to lead them,” Akers said. “It seems that people have blind faith in the system of higher education to deliver them toward a good outcome, but it doesn’t work out that way.”