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Witnesses Describe Need for Improving Transparency in Higher Education, Safeguarding Student Privacy

The Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Development, chaired by Rep. Brett Guthrie (R-KY), today held a hearing to examine transparency in higher education.

The Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Development, chaired by Rep. Brett Guthrie (R-KY), today held a hearing to examine transparency in higher education. Members discussed the need for complete and accurate information to ensure students and their families are making informed decisions and to help policymakers hold federal student aid programs accountable. They also examined the importance of balancing the need for transparency and accountability while protecting student privacy.

“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,” Chairman Guthrie said. “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.”

Fortunately, colleges and universities are taking steps to help make the process easier for prospective students.

Andrew Benton, president of Pepperdine University, expressed how transparency plays a role in the university’s commitment to serving the needs of its students and alumni. “Providing the information and resources students need to benefit fully from their college experience is one important way we honor that commitment,” Benton said.

Congress has also taken steps to help. As a result of reforms policymakers adopted in 2008, colleges and universities are making information about price, financial aid, demographics, and graduation rates more readily available to the public. As Chairman Guthrie noted, “Many of these initiatives provide helpful resources to students and their families, but clearly there is more work to be done.”

Witnesses echoed the need to provide better transparency, while also voicing concerns regarding the privacy of students.

“[Students] face a dearth of clear, comparable data on the cost and quality of difference offerings,” said Mark Schneider, vice president and institute fellow at American Institutes for Research. He continued, “Some basic pieces of information, such as the actual out-of-pocket costs for a given student at a given institution, are available only at the very end of the college-application process, after students have settled on a set of choices.”

But as Benton pointed out, “If we are going to put data to work for students, it should be maintained first and foremost at the institutional level if our response to these requests is to be effective and respectful of privacy."

The need to respect privacy was reaffirmed by Schneider, who said, “It is important to place clear restrictions on what federal regulations can use such data for, to make sure these efforts are designed to serve a specific audience and to protect students’ privacy.”

Witnesses also underscored how additional transparency in higher education would help protect taxpayers and provide greater accountability in the federal student aid system.

Jason Delisle, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, described the current data on the federal student loan system as “a patchwork rather than a complete picture” and said that, “the data that the federal government makes available leaves much to be desired.” He added that, “Improving the quantity and quality of the data is imperative for ensuring that the program works well for all types of borrowers and does not waste taxpayer dollars.”

Looking toward the important legislative work that lies ahead, Chairman Guthrie concluded, “We must balance the need for transparency and accountability with the need to protect student privacy and maintain a limited federal role. As we work to reauthorize the Higher Education Act, empowering students and families and improving accountability will be leading priorities.”

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