Democratic and Republican policymakers have pushed for better consumer information about colleges and universities, but our new report on an effort to provide Virginia high school students with information on higher education outcomes raises questions about whether consumer-facing websites, like the US Department of Education’s College Scorecard, will have the impact policymakers expect.
The Scorecard began reporting information on average earnings by college less than two years ago and does not drill down to the program (academic-major) level, an important limitation given that some fields pay better than others. For our study, we launched a similar website for Virginia colleges that presents data on academic-major level earnings and on net price, but found that it had no measurable effect on which college or field students enrolled in after high school. And there was tepid interest in the tool among schools and students in the first place.
These results do not, however, mean federal policymakers should abandon efforts to produce and disseminate information on higher education outcomes. Continuing to collect these data at the federal level is important. But policymakers should consider whether they are using the best channels and targeting the right audiences.
New higher education consumer information tools like ours are entering a crowded landscape. Many high schools have well-developed procedures to help students navigate the college selection process.
Our study shows that just providing information on program-level earnings may not change high school students’ decisions on where to go to school. Our test is just one of many, however, that should be done to understand the potential of providing earnings outcomes data in higher education. Policymakers shouldn’t discount the potential of publishing earnings outcome data in higher education. Providing these data is a necessary first step to support consumer choice and a more robust system of accountability for outcomes imposed by policymakers and the market.
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