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Guthrie Statement: Hearing on “Empowering Students and Families to Make Informed Decisions on Higher Education”

Many people in this country grow up dreaming about the college experience — leaving home and starting off on their own in the world — hoping to obtain the education and skills they need to be successful in life. With more than 7,000 postsecondary institutions in the U.S. to choose from, selecting the best school and finding the best way to pay for it can be a daunting task.

In fact, just this morning, some key details of a new report — set to be fully unveiled early next month — were publicly released, and they provide some fresh insights into how prospective students make important decisions that affect their long-term academic and professional futures.

According to the preliminary findings of a national survey conducted by Gallup in partnership with the Strada Education Network, most people rely on a family member or relative when deciding which major or field to choose. And as we all know, this decision, often impacts which college or university a person decides to attend.

Fortunately, there are those who are relying on trusted high school counselors or college advisors. Very few turn to online resources, including websites maintained by schools. But it is also troubling to learn that more than 20 percent of individuals with some college experience never sought the advice of anyone or used any other available resources as they made these important decisions.

Without objection, I would like submit for the record a letter from Strada highlighting some of the key findings of this national survey. Hearing no objections, the letter will be made a part of the record.

In 2008, Congress took steps to improve transparency in higher education. Because of those reforms, colleges and universities are making information about price, financial aid, demographics, and graduation rates more readily available to the public. Many of these initiatives provide helpful resources to students and their families, but clearly there is more work to be done.

First, much of the information currently available is about first-time, full-time students — despite the fact that only 21 percent of undergraduate students are attending postsecondary education full-time and for the first-time. Today’s college students come from a variety of backgrounds that no longer neatly fits into the traditional full-time student schedule, which is why they need information that properly reflects the unique circumstances they face.

Secondly, we want to be sure that institutions are not overburdened with red tape. Collecting this information can be time-consuming. The Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, also known as IPEDS, currently requires institutions to complete 12 separate surveys capturing hundreds of pages of data taking nearly one million combined hours each year to complete. The time and money universities and colleges spend on data collection requirements can lead to higher costs that inevitably affect the students who attend.

Third, it’s important that we as policymakers can properly evaluate the success of the federal student aid system and ensure taxpayer dollars are being used responsibly. Unfortunately, in many ways, that’s just not the case today.

\Much of the information surrounding students defaulting on their loans is unknown. We don’t know how much they’ve paid back before defaulting on the loan. We also don’t know the type of repayment plans they are using when they default. We also don’t know how much the various income-driven repayment programs are really costing taxpayers or how many students who receive a Pell grant are actually graduating.

Quite frankly, we don’t really know what’s working and what’s not. As policymakers, we need to be better equipped to conduct proper oversight of how taxpayer dollars are being spent.

Lastly, but most importantly, we must balance the need for transparency and accountability with the need to protect student privacy and maintain a limited federal role. Striking that balance is never easy. However, the need to provide students and policymakers with more information — no matter how valuable that information may be — should never come at the expense of student privacy.

At the end of the day, the college experience should be a joyous occasion for students and their families. That’s why it’s important for the federal student aid system to be efficient and effective. And that’s why it is important to do everything we can to provide better transparency so students are able to make informed decisions.

As we work to reauthorize the Higher Education Act, empowering students and families and improving accountability will be leading priorities. I’m looking forward to hearing the testimonies of this panel of witness who will have great insight into how we can do just that. Thank you, again, for your attendance.

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