College Transparency Act Inches Closer to Passing

The policy would give college applicants more robust data about post-graduation outcomes from different schools, including graduates' average starting salaries.
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  • The College Transparency Act is over four years in the making.
  • It is currently the closest it has ever been to passing.
  • This policy aims to add to data reporting already available to students.

A more robust national student data system is one step closer to becoming a reality.

The College Transparency Act, which would require institutions to collect and submit data to the Department of Education on student enrollment, persistence, and transfer and completion measures, was a late amendment to the America COMPETES Act. That sprawling omnibus bill, intended to boost U.S. competitiveness with China, passed the U.S. House of Representatives Feb. 4 and will now head to the U.S. Senate.

Because the bill comprises several previous proposals and hundreds of new amendments, it still faces an uphill climb. But, if it passes Congress as-is and makes it to President Joe Biden's desk, it could usher in a new data system that would provide to college students copious information on institutions and their specific programs.

Many higher education advocate organizations immediately praised the inclusion of the College Transparency Act in the COMPETES Act. A group of 38 organizations addressed a letter to House and Senate leaders the day the bill passed the House of Representatives.

[The bill] will improve information on higher education outcomes to empower students and families to make important postsecondary decisions

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"[The bill] will improve information on higher education outcomes to empower students and families to make important postsecondary decisions; create a strong evidence-base for policymaking; and strengthen institutions' efforts to increase college completion," the letter said.

"Its implementation would ensure America's students have accurate information on college access, affordability, and completion, and it would enable them to make more informed choices about their education and career pathways."

How Would the College Transparency Act Help Students?

The federal government already collects a large amount of data relating to students, institutions, and the programs within each college and university. That includes information like total cost, average debt taken on to attend school, completion rates, and average earnings after graduation.

What the College Transparency Act would add is the ability to separate out much of this data by different characteristics. Shelbe Klebs, an education policy advisor at the think tank Third Way, told BestColleges that this added function would be the true game-changer.

"As our student bodies are changing, I think it's important we collect data to reflect those changes," Klebs said. "[The College Transparency Act] would provide a level of detail that we've never had. It would help us identify inequities in the system we can't analyze right now."

According to a report from the Institute for Higher Education Policy, the following data points are not currently required in the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, but would be in the new data system:

  • Military/veteran status
  • First-generation college student status
  • Transfer status
  • Number of credits attempted and completed
  • Cumulative debt
  • Loan payment amount
  • Remaining debt
  • Repayment amount

"That's more information that [students] would have access to when they're trying to make a decision," Klebs added.

Additionally, the data network would include information about all students, she said.

The most popular resource among students for institution- and program-level data is the College Scorecard, a site run by the Department of Education. However, the Scorecard's data only includes students who received federal financial aid. Third Way estimates this leaves out approximately 30% of all college students.

Under the College Transparency Act, these students would also be included in the new data system, providing a more holistic picture of affordability and post-graduation outcomes.

Klebs added that this information wouldn't just help students, but institutions, researchers, and policymakers, too.

Bipartisan Support for College Transparency Act

The College Transparency Act's inclusion in the House version of the America COMPETES Act is the closest the bill has ever been to passing, Klebs said. However, obstacles remain.

The Senate has its own version of the COMPETES Act, called the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act. The Senate bill is fairly distinct from the House version in many ways. The Senate version does not include anything about a college database, and there are also key differences related to U.S. competition with China.

Generally, a close 50-50 split in the Senate has made it difficult to pass legislation through that chamber since the start of 2021. Considering the House version of the COMPETES Act narrowly passed in a 222-210 vote almost completely along party lines, there is a fair chance that passing through the Senate will also be difficult.

The Transparency Act amendment was slightly more popular than the rest of the COMPETES bill. Congressional records show the amendment passed in a 238-193 vote on Feb.4.

Klebs of Third Way said the College Transparency Act has always garnered bipartisan support, starting when politicians first introduced the bill in May 2017. 2021 marked the third time members of Congress proposed the policy, and each time the bill has had almost an equal number of Democrat and Republican co-sponsors.

Nearly 150 organizations voiced their support in April 2021 for the stand-alone bill.