Alexander: Federal Government Better at Collecting Data from Colleges and Universities than Explaining it to Students

Says government should “cut required information down to size” and then enable others to “make it useful”

Posted on May 6, 2015

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“How do we encourage the dissemination of this information in useful ways? Our temptation in the federal government often is, ‘well here’s a problem, we’ll fix it.’ And we don’t fix this kind of thing very well. So how do we cut the required information down to size, and how do we enable others to take this information and make it useful?” –Lamar Alexander

 

WASHINGTON, D.C., May 6 – U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) today said that the government has done a better job of collecting information from colleges and universities than it has in sharing that information with students, and suggested that the federal government should enable its dissemination, rather than try to do it itself.

“How do we encourage the dissemination of this information in useful ways? Our temptation often is, ‘well here’s a problem, we’ll fix it.’ And we don’t fix that kind of thing very well. So how do we cut the required information down to size, and how do we enable others to take this information and make it useful?” 

Today is the Senate education committee’s second hearing this Congress on the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. 

Stacy Lightfoot, vice president of College & Career Success Initiatives at the Public Education Foundation in Chattanooga, Tenn., was a witness at the hearing. Lightfoot told the senators that simplifying the FAFSA form students are required to fill out to apply for federal financial aid for college— as called for in the FAST Act, which Alexander and Sen. Bennet (D-Colo.) introduced, along with Sens. Booker (D-N.J.), Burr (R-N.C.), King (I-Maine) and Isakson (R-Ga.)—“would ease a lot of burdens on students and families.”  Lightfoot also told the senators that she believes it is important to provide students with their financial aid eligibility information in their junior year, telling them that receiving that information senior year “does not give students enough time to make informed decisions.” 

The senator’s full prepared remarks follow:

This is our second higher education hearing, but we have a good head start.  Last Congress we held 13 hearings on higher education and 20 of the 22 members of the current committee were there to participate.

We also have a few bipartisan bills already introduced on key issues in the Higher Education Act, including:

  • The FAST Act, which was introduced by six senators—Senator Bennet and myself, and Senators Booker, Burr, King and Isakson—would reduce to two questions the FAFSA form students fill out to apply for federal aid, simplify the student aid system, and reduce borrowing.
  • Also, the REPAY Act, which Senator Burr has introduced with Senator Angus King along with Senators Warner, Rubio, Collins and me, to simplify student loan repayment.                                                                                                                     

Senators Mikulski, Burr, Bennett and I are planning to introduce legislation incorporating many of the recommendations from a report we commissioned to examine the current state of federal rules and regulations on our colleges and universities. That report detailed 59 specific regulations, requirements and areas for Congress and the Department of Education to consider simplifying or eliminating. 

Senator Murray and I are going to work together on a bipartisan process for reauthorizing the Higher Education Act and we hope to produce a bill this fall. 

We’re here today to examine what information prospective students want and need to know in order to make their college choice, and look at whether that matches up with all the information that federal law requires colleges and universities to collect. 

Students can choose from among more than 6,000 accredited colleges and universities. To make a smart choice, students need information. 

The federal government collects and disseminates information on colleges and universities.  Congress tries to ensure that the information is what students want and need. 

This data collection requires significant time and money from the institutions and from the government.  

I have an example here of a data survey that each of our almost 1,000 public community colleges or technical schools must fill out each year. The other 5,000 colleges and universities must fill out a similar survey tailored to institution type.  This one is 426 pages of data requirements and reporting instructions on how to fill out or calculate the 3,300 different necessary responses or inputs. 

Last year the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators issued a report on federally mandated college consumer disclosures. They have lent me this 900-page binder to show what one university with two campuses is required to disclose – most of this is made public on the institution’s website.  But the law and regulations prescribe a dizzying variety of ways the different disclosures must be sent to current students, newly enrolled students, prospective students and, upon request, the public.  Items range from the useful and necessary – such as providing the terms and conditions of federal student aid to recipient—to the superfluous – such as informing students when Constitution Day is. 

The president of that association suggested that it’s such an overwhelming amount of information that students can’t make good use of it. 

We have this phenomenon in too many areas of life today – for example, when you’re going to get a car loan – you can easily be overwhelmed by the information they’re required to provide. 

At colleges, the burden of getting this information to the student falls, in most cases, on the Financial Aid Office. Providing students with this heap of information takes away time and money from other important activities, like counseling students about loans or the careers they might follow. 

Ninety percent of college administrators—who work every day with this information—say requirements could be eliminated or modified, and that they are among the most burdensome parts of higher education regulations.[1] 

Educators are urging us to reduce reporting requirements.  I got a handwritten note from president from the University of Missouri who wrote, “I’ve been in higher education administration for over 40 years, the last 20 as a university president, and I’ve never experienced the amount of regulatory pressure that our institution currently faces.” 

What I just discussed was only a part of the mandates on colleges and universities by the federal government. Back when we reauthorized the Higher Education Act in 2008, I brought a copy of all the regulations, subregulatory guidance, Dear Colleague Letters and forms institutions must comply with to the floor of the Senate to show other Senators that the greatest threat I believe, to higher education is over regulation. At that time, the boxes almost reached the top of my head, and that was before the reauthorization passed and many more requirements went into place. 

I mentioned earlier the report four members of this committee commissioned on higher education regulations.

The distinguished educators who authored that report describe the “jungle of red tape” strangling our nation’s colleges and universities. Overloading consumers with an enormous amount of federally mandated information was among the top 10 areas they identified as particularly burdensome. 

For example, the educators question the need for annually informing students of a college’s policy on copyright infringement or how many fire drills the institution held last year. 

We know that institutions find the requirements burdensome—but do students actually use this information? 

The most well-known federal consumer tool is the College Navigator, which is a website that was mandated in the last Higher Education Act reauthorization. If you print out information from the College Navigator on a single university, your printout runs 14 pages of tables and graphs. It’s better suited to researchers than to students. 

Two years ago, the White House added a new federal tool - the College Scorecard - but students’ initial reaction to it was best summarized, according to a Center for American Progress study, as “What am I looking at?”[2] 

We know students are not using federal websites for college. For example, one survey showed only 18 percent of prospective adults used any interactive website to compare colleges. College Board found only 12 percent of high school students reported using government tools to learn about college costs.[3]

Consumer information that is too complicated to understand or to use is worthless. 

Senator Warren understands this. In her time at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, she tried to boil down the mortgage disclosure form to a two-page “shopping sheet” so people could actually understand what they were getting.

This leads to these driving questions:

How might consumer information actually become useful for prospective students and families?

What better information may be needed?

What requirements can we get rid of?

We have a panel of distinguished witnesses here today with hands-on knowledge about how prospective students and families use information to decide on a college. I look forward to hearing what they have to say. 

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