Students need reliably accessible, timely, accurate, and comparable information about costs, financial aid, and typical outcomes in order to make informed decisions about where to go to school and how to pay for it.
By highlighting important data on individual colleges’ costs and student outcomes, the Department’s College Scorecard is a key resource for students and families. However, key data on student debt are still not available, and it remains too difficult for students to get comparable estimates of how much prospective colleges may cost them or to compare aid offers from different colleges. That is why we recommend improvements in the collection and availability of student data as well as the improvement and promotion of important federal consumer tools.
Bring the Postsecondary Data System into the 21st Century
The creation of a student-level data network with strong protocols for maintaining student privacy and protecting data security is key to increasing the comprehensiveness and comparability of postsecondary data.
We have joined over 175 organizations, including business leaders, schools, student advocates and civil rights, in supporting the 2019 bipartisan, bicameral College Transparency Act (S. 800, H.R. 1766) to repeal the 2008 ban on a federal student-level data network and implement holistic reform of postsecondary data infrastructure while protecting privacy and prioritizing data security.
Without such reform, important measures of student success and their relationship to student debt, including at key disaggregates by race/ethnicity, will remain out of reach of both students and policymakers, and public data will continue to fall short of reflecting all students.
Collect Private Student Loan Data
Student debt data currently available remain incomplete and uneven. For example, the total debt at graduation — including both federal and private loans — is still not available for each college. Data on student debt levels voluntarily reported by colleges show that 31 percent of student loan debt in high-debt states is nonfederal debt, underscoring the need for more comprehensive, federally collected debt data.
The Department has made important progress by publishing graduates’ median cumulative debt data on the College Scorecard using data from the National Student Loan Data System (NSLDS), including most recently by working toward finalizing program-level cumulative debt data. Yet, such data will remain incomplete because private loans are not included in NSLDS. Requiring colleges to report nonfederal loan data, either at the school level through IPEDS or at the student level via NSLDS, would be the most expedient path to collecting nonfederal debt data.
However, Congressional action requiring the federal government to collect the data directly from lenders via the Department of Education or the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau would improve data comprehensiveness and accuracy, as well as reduce burden on institutions. This collection would ideally be part of a federal student-level data network, but it need not wait for such a system.
Improve and Promote Tools to Help Students Make Informed College Decisions
Students need more reliably accessible, timely, accurate, and comparable information to make informed decisions about where to go to school and how to pay for it. We recommend further improvements to and promotion of the following existing consumer tools:
- College Scorecard: The College Scorecard is an interactive online tool that provides consumer-friendly information on the chances of completing, borrowing, or ending up with high debt and/or low earnings at a specific school. The Department has made important progress on including additional program-level data that increases the usefulness of that information. Unfortunately, it has also removed key contextual information that helped users interpret the information the Scorecard provides.
The Department should immediately restore the threshold earnings rate metric to the College Scorecard and work to improve on that metric by calculating and publishing threshold earnings rates at the program level, in addition to the school level. The Department should also restore the display of national medians to College Scorecard data.
The tool would be further improved by including a schools’ graduation rate for Pell Grant recipients and by enhancing the interactivity of the sorting tools to allow users to compare colleges by degree level, selectivity, and location.
Additionally, cumulative debt figures should allow for the calculation and comparison of state-level figures, and include both federal and private loan debt as soon as they are collected and available.
- Net Price Calculators: Nearly all colleges are required to have a net price calculator on their website to provide an individualized estimate of how much the college would cost a particular student, well before they have to decide where to apply. TICAS and others’ research has found that many of these calculators are hard to find, use, and compare.
Bipartisan, bicameral legislation has been introduced (S. 889, H.R. 1915) in 2019 to make needed improvements to the design and accessibility of existing net price calculators. The legislation also authorizes the creation of a central portal that would let students quickly and easily get comparable net price estimates for multiple colleges without having to enter information multiple times in different places.
- Financial Aid Offer Communications: Students should be able to count on receiving clear and comparable information about how much college will cost them, regardless of the schools they are considering. Knowing how much they will need to save, earn, or borrow to cover remaining costs after grant aid is also key to being able to find the right financial fit, avoid surprise costs, and plan accordingly. Yet, research from TICAS and others shows too many aid offer communications fall far short of clearly and consistently providing key information on college cost and financial aid.
Bipartisan, bicameral legislation was introduced (S. 888, H.R. 2321) in 2019 to require all colleges receiving federal aid to use consistent financial aid terminology in a standardized format developed through robust consumer testing involving a broad range of stakeholders, including students and schools.
- Loan Counseling: By law, all federal student loan borrowers must complete entrance and exit counseling. However, there remains significant potential as well as bipartisan support for enhancing federal student loan counseling to ensure that students receive clearer, timely, and actionable information on borrowing options and obligations. We support empowering schools to require annual counseling in order to more consistently provide students with information related to their previous and future borrowing decisions without deterring or restricting access to loans that students need to attend and succeed in college.
In 2019, a bipartisan bill (H.R. 2129) was introduced to require annual loan counseling and provide critical information encouraging students to use federal student loans before considering risky private loans to pay for college, and another bipartisan bill (S. 887) was introduced to require annual loan counseling. We also encourage the Department to continue evaluating and improving its online tools, including by consistently providing definitions of key terms, and more clearly explaining how to select or change a repayment plan.