WASHINGTON, D.C. | April 24, 2013 -
Good morning, and welcome to today’s subcommittee hearing. I’d like to thank our panel of witnesses for joining this important discussion on higher education transparency.
Receiving a college acceptance letter can be one of the most joyous moments in a student’s academic career. But for many families, that moment is often followed with the question: can we afford it?
In January the New York Times detailed the exhaustive research many prospective students and parents conduct when choosing a college. After their son was accepted into college, the Ewell family of Chicago tried to navigate the federally-mandated college cost calculators to better understand the financial investment – but it wasn’t as easy as they had expected.
“We didn’t have a lot of confidence that those were real numbers,” Ms. Ewell said. “They’re all so different, and it seemed like there were such wide ranges and so many caveats that it really didn’t feel apples-to-apples.”
In recent years, the federal government has taken steps to improve data collection and transparency in the higher education system. Under Republican leadership, the 2008 reauthorization of the Higher Education Act included several provisions to help provide families with the data needed to make informed decisions about their postsecondary opportunities.
First, the law directed the Secretary of Education to collect and report 26 different pieces of information about institutions including the percentage of students receiving different types of financial aid, average cost of tuition and fees, and the percent change in total tuition and fees. This data is compiled in the College Navigator, which provides information for approximately 7,000 colleges and universities.
Second, the law required all colleges participating in federal student aid programs to post net-price calculators on their websites. These calculators are supposed to help families understand the price of attendance at an institution, factoring in any grant or scholarship aid to give a more realistic estimate. However – as the Ewell family quickly realized – the calculators can be hard to use and are often difficult to find on college websites.
Finally, the 2008 HEA reauthorization required the Department of Education to develop a model financial aid award letter to help students better understand their aid packages. This Financial Aid Shopping Sheet is now used by more than 500 colleges and universities, but some higher education leaders have concerns that the shopping sheets are overly cumbersome and lack flexibility for institutions to present information in a way that makes the most sense.
President Obama recently took another step to enhance transparency, releasing an online tool known as the College Scorecard in an effort to highlight key information about higher education institutions, including costs, completion rate, and average student loan debt. According to the Center for American Progress, however, college-bound high school students struggle to understand the scorecard. Additionally, the scorecard has come under fire for using different methodologies to calculate data, creating more confusion for students who are trying to access accurate information about their postsecondary options.
Clearly there are areas for improvement in higher education data. However, as we discuss opportunities to provide more useful information to students and families, we must also bear in mind the significant investment colleges and universities already make to comply with existing reporting requirements.
Data collection is a time-consuming endeavor that leads to higher costs for many institutions. During the 2012-13 academic year, institutions spent an estimated 850,320 hours and almost $31 million to fill out required federal surveys. This is in addition to the time and money spent complying with reporting requirements from states and regional, national, or programmatic accrediting agencies.
As we approach reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, we must discuss ways to improve data without placing additional burdens on institutions or creating more confusion for students and families. We should also explore opportunities to better align federal transparency initiatives with state and accreditors’ reporting requirements. I’m confident our panel of witnesses will provide valuable insight into these issues, and I look forward to their testimony. With that, I will now yield to my distinguished colleague, Mr. Tim Bishop, for his opening remarks.