By Maureen Groppe
The House backed Wednesday a bill directing the U.S. Department of Education to study whether students have the information they need to make good college selections.
"Few decisions in life are bigger than whether you go to college and which college you go to," said Rep. Luke Messer, the Indiana Republican who authored the bill. "We hope to simplify the process and help ensure students can access the information they need to make good decisions while lessening the burden on colleges and universities that have far too many reporting requirements today."
The House passed the bill by a unanimous voice vote.
It must also be considered by the Senate, where Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., has a different approach.
Instead of studying the issue, Wyden's bill would require the Education Department to report such information as graduation rates, whether graduates have jobs and how much they earn.
Messer said a study is needed first because college data is already being reported in multiple ways.
"Before we add further complexities to the existing programs, we ought to ask the Department of Education to examine whether the information that's out there is working well for families," the Shelbyville Republican said.
The federal programs that exist include the College Navigator, which provides information on about 7,000 colleges and universities. All schools that participate in federal student aid programs have to post online calculators so students can see the net price of attending. And the department released in February its "College Scorecard," a one-page summary of the cost, debt and earnings potential of every degree-granting college in the United States.
But Don Heller, an expert on college admissions, testified at a House panel in April that, while lots of data now exists, there's still a problem with turning it into useful information that students can get in a timely way. Heller recommended Congress consider a targeted program to put college counselors into schools serving low-income students.
Messer said that his bill would direct the Education Department to make recommendations for changes in time for Congress to include them when rewriting higher education programs next year.
The recommendations could also include cutting back on the amount of data that schools have to report.
"There has been a growing concern in the community that the volume of institutional reports, data and policies we are required to make publicly available has been counterproductive," officials from Indiana University, Indiana State University and Purdue University wrote in a letter of support for the bill. "This effort is a good first step in enhancing the effectiveness of the information we report."
A spokesman for the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities said the group doesn't have a formal position on the bill, but the idea of studying what information students and families need to make good decisions would be helpful.
"There are so many information sources already available on the Internet designed to help with college selection and financial aid ... perhaps the challenge is too much information rather than too little," said spokesman Paul Hassen.
Although the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates Messer's bill would cost $1 million, Messer said the Education Department should be able to do the study for $40,000. His bill directs the department to use existing funds for the study.
Asked about the bill Tuesday, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said he wasn't familiar with its details but applauds efforts for greater transparency and clarity.
"We have the best system of higher education in the world, unquestionably, but the marketplace for choosing the right school is wildly inefficient," Duncan said at House education hearing.