Commentary

Think (Hard) before You Collect

People rightfully alarmed by colossal waste in higher education — huge non-completion ratesskyrocketing pricesgrowing debt – are looking for solutions, and one that many conservatives have landed on is for the federal government to put together and publish more data on school outcomes. The effort takes legislative shape in the Student Right to Know Before You Go Act of 2015, with bipartisan sponsorship in the House and Senate. It’s a well-intentioned effort. It’s also, for numerous reasons, a bad idea.

As I’ve argued before, a major reason to oppose more data collection and publication is that there is little evidence it will actually help. The fact is that college costs, retention rates, earnings by major, etc., are all widely available but appear to be regularly ignored. True, none of the available data sources are perfect, but there is no evidence of which I am aware that that is why so many students seem to ignore them.

A major reason to oppose more data collection and publication is that there is little evidence it will actually help.

A closely related concern is that while consumers likely won’t use the data, politicians will. Only they’ll cherry pick it to spin whatever political point they want to make, such as context-free assaults on for-profit schools, or fawning over community colleges.

There are also real privacy concerns. As has been illustrated time and time again, barriers between bad guys and data — no matter what we are promised — are not impregnable. And it doesn’t appear that Know Before You Go would restrict data collection and publication to only people who participate in federal aid program, folks one could arguably assert willingly traded their privacy for federal dough. The legislation calls for disaggregating outcomes measures for “students who received neither a Federal Pell Grant, nor a loan.”

Perhaps most important, there is nothing in the legislation that appears to call for controlling for characteristics of students. That goes right back to a fundamental problem with federal student aid that is ignored when we — myself included — blame schools for “bad” performance: Washington will give just about any person very large amounts of aid. The schools that take the least prepared, motivated, or academically able students will of course have worse outcomes, but they are only doing what the federal government wants: enrolling people in post-secondary schooling. The real problem is federal “help,” and nothing in the legislation appears geared toward shedding any light on that.

Know Before You Go is well-intentioned, but will likely do little to improve outcomes while handing more smoke and mirrors to politicians to distract from the perverse outcomes of indiscriminately handing out huge bundles of student aid. Oh, and I almost forgot to ask: Where in the Constitution is any of this authorized? Right: Nowhere.

Neal McCluskey is the associate director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom.