Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Hearing- Reauthorizing the Higher Education Act: The Role of Consumer Information in College Choice

May 8, 2015 · by mlivolsi · Spark Notes

Prepared by: Michelle Cravez (

May 7, 2015

On May 6, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee held a hearing, “Reauthorizing the Higher Education Act: The Role of Consumer Information in College Choice.”

Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN); Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-WA); Sens. Bill Cassidy (R-LA); Al Franken (D-MN); Elizabeth Warren (D-MA); Chris Murphy (D-CT); Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI); and Tim Scott (R-SC).

• Mark Schneider, Ph.D. , Vice President and Institute Fellow, American Institutes for Research, and President, College Measures
• Deborah Santiago, Chief Operating Officer and Vice President for Policy, Excelencia in Education,
• Stacy Lightfoot, Vice President of College & Career Success Initiatives, Public Education Foundation, Public Education Foundation
• Taleah Mitchell, graduate, Seattle Central College

Chairman Alexander opened the hearing saying the committee is off to a good start on Higher Education Act (HEA) reauthorization. He highlighted some of the current bipartisan bills already introduced on key issues in HEA such as, the FAST Act and the REPAYE Act. He announced that he along with Sens. Mikulski, Burr, and Bennett are planning to introduce legislation incorporating many of the recommendations from the report completed by the task force commissioned to examine the current state of federal rules and regulations on colleges and universities. He said that he is hoping to produce a bill reauthorizing the Higher Education Act by this fall. Alexander, then moved on to the topic of the hearing, and said that the federal government does a better job of collecting information from colleges and universities than it has done in sharing that information with students. He suggested that the federal government enable others to take this information and make it useful, rather than trying to do it themselves. He held up a 900-page binder lent to him by the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators to show what one university with two campuses is required to disclose. He said that sometimes too much consumer information can be confusing and that students can’t make good use of it. He pointed to the most well known federal consumer tool, the College Navigator, a website mandated in the last HEA reauthorization. He said the College Navigator printout runs 14 pages long and is better suited for researchers than for students looking to make a decision on where to attend college. Alexander said students are not using federal websites for college, pointing to a College Board study that found only 12 percent of high school graduates use government tools to learn about college. The chairman said we need to know how consumer information might become useful for perspective students and families, what better information may be needed, and what requirements can be eliminated.

Ranking Member Murray began by discussing her principles for reauthorizing HEA, including making college more affordable, strengthening protections so students have access to a safe learning environment, ensuring all students have clear pathways into and through higher education, and reducing student debt. She discussed how a lack of clear and consistent consumer data make it difficult for students to navigate college options, and she said HEA reauthorization must improve the current system to collect this data. She said, “Students need to easily see accurate information on: how much they will pay and borrow, the amount they’ll earn if they complete their degree, and their chances of succeeding.” She mentioned a letter she received from several organizations including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Young Invincibles, and New America Foundation urging Congress to get rid of the current restrictions on student data.

Mark Schneider explained how his current and previous work has led him to believe that consumer information can be organized into five different questions that students and families need to ask to inform their decisions. These questions include: Will I get in (selectivity), will I get out (graduation rates), how long will it take (time to complete), how much will I pay (net price), and how much will I make (post completion earnings). He then listed four issues that cut across all of the five categories/questions he mentioned. First, he said that any effort to develop information about postsecondary education most include information about subbaccalaureate credentials. Second, he said the U.S. must break our “bachelors addiction.” He explained that subbaccalaureate degrees can lead to earnings that will place students in the middle class and sometimes lead to jobs with salaries higher than those of students with a bachelor’s degree. Third, he said we need to battle our fixation on institutional level measurement because student outcomes can vary more by program of study than by institution. Lastly, he said that getting information into the hands of consumers in a format that is useful, usable and actually used is difficult. Schneider argued that Congress needs to find a way to allow student data to be matched with federal tax data collected by the IRS. He said that he understands that this is fraught with privacy concerns, but he believes there are strong methods to protect this data and make the process secure. He stated a reasonable place to start would be to merge the federal income tax data with the Federal Student Aid Center’s (FSA) data. He said that of equal importance is for the federal government to make a policy that allows state governments to match their much more complete student data with federal tax data. Schneider stressed the necessity of the federal government creating high quality data but suggested that dissemination of this data be left to others. He said that private companies, non-profits, and state governments can do a better job at disseminating this data to consumers.

Deborah Santiago began her testimony by explaining why the term “nontraditional” to describe students is no longer a proper fit, and that the term “post-traditional” better describes the growing majority of students today. She said that the traditional student profile currently drives information and current discussions on college, but that less than 20 percent of students actually fit this “traditional” profile. Post-traditional students include part-time, returning, veteran, commuting, adult, Latino and other traditionally underrepresented students. She said that post-traditional prospective students make pragmatic college choices and that understanding how these students make college choices can better improve the crosswalk between what students want to know and should know to find their “best fit.” She said that an abundance of information does not necessarily help these students find their “best fit” school. Santiago said that intermediaries play a critical role in disseminating information to these students who rely on these organizations for information and guide their decisions.

Stacy Lightfoot shared her personal story about the meaningful role of her college counselor who helped steer her towards a school that was the best fit for her needs. She described this advisor as her “translator” and explained that students need these translators to help ask the right questions about college and prepare them for their postsecondary experience. She said there needs to be additional policy under HEA to require colleges to publish accurate data on long term student outcomes including job outcomes, financial aid outcomes, and default loan rates. Lightfoot applauded a simplified version of the FAFSA and voiced her support for the use of prior-prior year data for determining financial aid. She also said that providing clear data on Pell Grant recipient graduation rates would be useful to college counselors to help guide their low-income students to choose their best fit schools.

Taleah Mitchell spoke on behalf of non-traditional students and in support of the college and career pathway model, the heart of the two-year college system. She spoke about Washington State’s Basic Education for Adults program called I-BEST (Integrated Basic Education and Skills Training). This program pairs two instructors in the classroom – one to teach professional/technical or academic content and the other to teach basic skills in reading, math, writing or English language. She advocated on behalf of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, which helps fund programs like I-BEST. Mitchell spoke about the need for a centralized information portal for perspective students and for restoring year round Pell Grants and expanding Pay as You Earn opportunities.

Chairman Alexander commenced the question and answer session by asking Lightfoot to explain to the committee why providing students with financial aid eligibility in their junior year of high school might make a difference in their college choices, an idea put forth in his FAST Act HEA reauthorization bill. Lightfoot explained that the current system does not inform students about their financial aid eligibility until March-June. She said this does not give them sufficient time to make informed decisions, as many students must decide with their families how they can fill the financial aid gap. Alexander then asked Schneider how much data the federal government should collect and who should be responsible for disseminating this information. Schneider first joked that the statute of limitations for apologizing for IPEDS (Integrated Post Secondary Education Data System) had passed but that over time Congress has continued to mandate new data to be collected that may not necessarily be for consumer information. He said that the federal government can and should do a better job in collecting wage and labor outcome data and that this data must then be distributed to researchers, states, companies, and non-profits to figure out how best to put it in the hands of consumers.

Ranking Member Murray asked Mitchell what factors are most important to her when she decides to continue her education and pursue a bachelor’s degree. Mitchell responded that she will be looking into schools’ support services, graduation rates, and student success rates. Murray then asked Schneider what information is currently missing that would be of use to consumers. Schneider said information is needed like graduation and economic outcomes on a program level and not just on an institutional level. Murray followed up and asked him how we can collect this data. Schneider responded that federal income tax data could be compared to FSA data and that states could also compare their own data with IRS information. Murray then asked Santiago if she believed there is sufficient information on student outcomes. Santiago said that current data does not account for many non-traditional students such as those who have transferred or are part-time.

Senator Cassidy asked Lightfoot about students’ financial literacy and how they are expected to make decisions without truly understanding the value of the debt they are taking on. Lightfoot responded that many young people are financially illiterate and need someone, such as a teacher or advisor, to serve as a translator to explain their financial options. She said that the government should build strong college advisors. Cassidy followed-up by stating that investing in personnel is costly, and asked if she believed an online system that provided this information could help. Lighthouse said that if the variables were right, then she could see such an app or tool being helpful but that advisers are still essential to helping students, particularly those who are low-income and first generation.

Senator Franken spoke about a bill he introduced that would require colleges to post a net price calculator on their websites that was easily accessible to students. He asked if anyone had any ideas on how in the meantime we can ensure that colleges make these net calculators easy to find. Schneider responded that there are currently 200 colleges who refuse to allow their net price calculators be picked up by aggregators. All witnesses agreed that net price calculators are important and should be prominently displayed on schools’ websites. Franken then spoke about another bill he is working on that would require schools to use a uniform financial aid award letter and asked Santiago if she believed this would be helpful. Santiago said she agreed with the use of a uniform financial aid letter that clearly distinguishes what students receive as scholarship money and what students receive as loans and must pay back.

Senator Warren mentioned a recent New York Times article that claims the Department of Education lacks basic information and is unable to answer questions such as how many borrowers are delinquent on loans, which colleges are doing a good job on graduating students who can pay their debt, or how does delinquency differ by amount of debt, income and education. She asks Schneider if it was his job when he was Commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) to disseminate clear statistics on financial aid. Schneider replied that NCES was not designed to provide this data to the federal government and that the data systems are designed for business operations and not for dissemination to departments and consumers. Warren asked if the Department of Education made this information available to him so that he could answer these types of questions referenced in the New York Times article. Schneider said that the Department did not give this data to the NCES and that FSA will not make the data public. Sen. Warren said it’s “nuts” that the Department won’t “turn loose” this critical data, and expressed her hope that this would be addressed going forward. Chairman Alexander said that he and Sen. Murray will work with her to make sure this topic is looked into.

Senator Murphy pointed out that it is difficult to find out information on students’ post graduation income and success and that he assumes this is because of the 2008 law prohibiting the federal government from collecting individual student data. Schneider responded that the ban is a roadblock although FSA does have a significant amount of information collected already but refuses to share this information.

Senator Whitehouse suggested implementing an online dashboard tool, similar to one of the principles that emerged during ESEA reauthorization. The dashboard tool would have a “basic, simple interface” to replace overly complex sites such as College Navigator. He also touched upon for-profit schools and said the predatory nature of some of these schools is concerning. Schneider said that he believes that the kind of measures we are holding for-profit schools accountable for should be applied to all schools.

Senator Scott agreed with Schneider on the nation’s current “bachelor’s addiction” and asked how to help students make better decisions from a cost perspective and lead them towards technical schools and community colleges. Lightfoot responded that she agreed that for the majority of people, traditional four-year programs first come to mind when they think of college. She said that language and message needs to change so that students can find their place in two-year programs. Scott said the federal government should not be responsible for disseminating that information to consumers.

Chairman Alexander thanked the witnesses and invited them to provide additional feedback to the committee as they continue to move ahead in reauthorizing HEA. He announced that the next hearing on HEA reauthorization would take place on Wednesday, May 20.

For more information about the hearing, including written testimony and an archived webcast, go to:

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