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February 13, 2013

But Will the Campaign for New Accountability Work?

The push to make public the earnings of new college graduates and President Obama's "College Scorecard," which he touted in his State of the Union Speech last night, are promising tools to assist graduates in making the best choices of school and major. Several states have also set up similar methods of evaluating the "bang for the buck" criteria that is on the mind of virtually every undergraduate.

We can be thankful that public officials are starting to take meaningful steps to avoid more of what is, perhaps, the signature financial problem of the Millennial generation: student loan debt. Companies like Payscale.com and College Measures have already made available similar metrics to inform students about the expected returns from College A or B, but their audience is more limited than what will one day be available in statewide databases. As the states and the federal government mandate wider access to this information, more students will increasingly make better educational choices.

But there is a counter-narrative: increasing consumer access to data means a new layer of accountability to which colleges are not historically subject. Colleges, like the University of North Carolina, fear such accountability, since has the potential to disrupt their business model. The Journal profiled a 23-year old graduate of Goucher College re-examining his choice to accrue $100,000 in debt as a political science major. "Was college worth getting in the amount of debt I'm in?" he asks. "At this point, I can't answer that."  For Goucher, a blemish like this is ugly enough. A publicly accessible dataset of them will force Goucher's financial aid administrators, professors, and development staff alike to change how they do business. For many colleges, that business depends on sucking up huge amounts of federal student loan dollars. Conservatives, and many liberals (as this essay by Kevin Carey makes clear), know that colleges take advantage of easy federal loan dollars to furnish an expensive product of questionable quality, and want it to stop.

Undoubtedly, it will take some time to work out kinks over sample sizes, privacy concerns, and whether or not data-based tools like this wrongly encourage students to think about college in purely financial terms. Still, making students more aware of likely outcomes is an essential piece of the puzzle in solving the problems of student loan debt and high youth unemployment.

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David Wilezol is the co-author of the forthcoming book "Is College Worth It?" with former U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett. Follow him on Twitter: @davidwilezol.

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