By Richard Vedder
Kevin Carey is one of the best thinkers on higher education issues today. He is bright, reformist, with a genuine concern about making colleges more efficient, more affordable, and better. He wrote a wonderful column in today's INSIDE HIGHER ED, brought to my attention by Charles Miller, a kindred spirit who did a lot of wonderful things himself as chair of the Spellings Commission.
While I agree with the main point of Kevin's article, it is something he revealed that I simply did not know that caught my attention. Before getting to that, Kevin lamented the death of a great idea --integrating student records throughout the school years to allow us to gain greater insight into student performance, learning, migration patterns, etc. While some responsible and thoughtful university leaders welcomed it, the so-called independent colleges (translation of "independent": give us money but leave us alone to do whatever we darn well please) fought the idea tooth-and-nail, lead by their chief lobbyist, David Warren. David was forever blasting Spellings Commissions proposals on this and other things.
The Warren argument is that the proposal would be a fundamental intrusion into privacy. Kevin points out that most schools willingly and frequently share the Social Security numbers of their students through the National Student Clearinghouse in suburban Washington, D.C. with student loan providers. They are being hypocritical to argue "we must protect student privacy" while at the same time sharing numbers with loan providers and sending those numbers to a warehouse in Virginia.
How about doing three things:
1) Require colleges on the federal dole (taking federal grants, students taking Pell Grants or federal loans) to send their student's Social Security numbers to the National Clearinghouse, as most of them already do;
2) Require the National Clearinghouse to send to the Internal Revenue Service and/or the Social Security Administration (the IRS is preferred), the Social Security numbers of all students classified by college of attendance, from 10 years earlier (e.g., in 2008 the Clearinghouse would send the IRS the students attending in 1998);
3) Require the IRS (or Social Security) to publish the median and mean work related earnings of those students of a decade ago, by their college, along with the mean and median earnings of all students by Carnegie classification. Perhaps some additional statistical data would be provided --the earnings at the 25th and 75th percentile of the distribution of students, for example.
This would give the world evidence on how students going to College X are doing a decade later --presumably in most cases 5-9 years after graduation. This would be an important "outcomes" based metric that would help students and their parents pick colleges. This would allow us to truly revolutionize our knowledge about higher education.
And it would not involve invading privacy any more than already occurs, and the colleges themselves would not be privy to the earnings data at the individual level. It would be relatively cheap to implement, and the dissemination of the information to the public would come from any number of persons publishing guides to colleges, university rankings, etc. Yet try to do it!!! I predict David Warren would say that the world as we know it is coming to an end. He would be dead wrong.