Students Need High-Quality Data to Make Informed College Decisions

Published Nov 04, 2019

by: Molly Hall-Martin

Deciding where to attend college, what to study, and how to pay for it are some of the most important decisions a student will make in their academic career. But many students and families are left without the data necessary to make an informed college choice. For example, information currently available to students cannot help them answer basic, yet critical questions, including: 

  • How many low-income, adult, transfer, and part-time students earn a postsecondary certificate or degree from a particular institution?
  • Which students go on to succeed in the workforce?
  • How do college access, affordability, and completion vary by race, ethnicity, and income?

Students like Coleen, a graduate of Ivy Tech Community College in Indiana, whom IHEP interviewed for their affordability report, The Cost of Opportunity: Student Stories of College Affordabilityhave to navigate and interpret available data to make college decisions, which takes a significant amount of savvy.

Coleen, a recent Ivy Tech Community College graduate, shares her college affordability story at an IHEP event. 

Coleen knew that she wanted to transfer to Purdue University after earning her associate’s degree at Ivy Tech and she sought out critical earnings information by major to help her decide between the institution’s business program and the agriculture business program. 

When Coleen explained her decision-making process to IHEP, she shared that she wanted to see “how much graduates of ag[riculture] business make, which was around $47,000 a year… how much college of business graduates make, which was $55,000 to $60,000 starting out.” Coleen explained that the difference in earnings over the course of her career was “the deciding factor” in her decision to eventually transfer into the business program. 

Coleen was fortunate that Purdue has graduate earnings by major based on student surveys available on the institution’s website. As another student, Leo, who attends Wayne State University in Michigan, told IHEP, “If you don’t know what it is that you’re paying for, how can comfortably progress forward? How can you be in the mindset to learn? You just can’t.”

College persistence requires a substantial investment of time and money on the part of students and their families – they need to know what kind of return they should expect and shouldn’t have to rely on student survey data, which can be incomplete and unreliable. 

To empower students like Coleen and Leo to make fully-informed decisions about their college education, policymakers should create a federal student-level data network (SLDN). Aggregate information from a SLDN would provide answers to questions about access, completion, costs, and post-college outcomes for students. It would help potential transfer students like Coleen see how all students perform in their prospective programs, not just those students currently captured in incomplete collections. And for both Coleen and Leo, knowing what they can expect to earn upon completion would help them make more informed borrowing decisions and better plan for their futures after graduation. 

Federal policymakers should also continue to improve the College Scorecard so students and families have access to valuable, up-to-date information that is easily comparable across institutions. 

You wouldn’t make any other life-altering decision without the full picture of what to expect from the investment. We cannot expect students to do so when it comes to their college education.

For more information about how we can use data to better serve students, check out the PostsecData website and follow us on Twitter to keep up with events, updates, and conversations.