Their View | House Republicans wrong to block data on college costs

July 10, 2014 

The following editorial appears on Bloomberg View:

For shame. That’s the reason Congress, when it passed the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008, required the Department of Education to pub-lish a list of the most expensive colleges and universities, which it did once again last week. Congress hoped that this simple act of public exposure would put pressure on colleges to hold down costs and offer more aid.

It had good reason to take that step: The price of a college education has risen far faster than the inflation rate over the past two decades. There is a healthy debate over what to do about this trend, and the simple release of data alone won’t reverse it. But a little public information doesn’t hurt.

Last week, however, several House Republicans introduced a bill repealing the requirement that the list of most expensive colleges be published. True, the list isn’t perfect; its definition of net price, for example, could lead colleges to game the distribution of financial aid. But all college rankings come with caveats, and even if the bill passes and the list is no longer a congressional mandate, the Department of Education should continue publishing it. It doesn’t need Congress to tell it how to present data.

Republicans say that their bill, which would replace the list with detailed new reporting rules, would give people more useful information. Even if some provisions of the House bill have real merit — such as ordering the Department of Education to disclose the percentage of Pell Grant students who graduate — colleges are already required in many cases to report such information to the federal government and are failing to do so. Better enforcement, not new legislation, should be the No. 1 priority.

In fact, providing consumers with more useful information requires less law, not more. In 2008, Congress prohibited the Department of Education from collecting and publishing the most basic data about college graduates. Consider this: If you are a high school senior looking at engineering programs, wouldn’t you like to know what percentage of each college’s engineering majors find jobs and what their average salaries are?

In the Senate, a bipartisan bill sponsored by Republican Sen. Marco Rubio and Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden is aimed at providing answers to those kinds of questions. But House Republicans, not to mention college presidents, don’t want students to have that information in a standardized format that would allow students to compare colleges. Restrictions can be placed on the data to protect privacy — and even limit the use of it, given the criticism Republicans have leveled at the Department of Education’s effort to rate colleges based on their performance. But a blanket prohibition on the data protects colleges’ reputations at great cost to students.

Before adding new reporting requirements, Congress should be reducing the prohibitions on information it has already imposed. Legislators in both parties are constantly trying to run the executive branch, eliminating agencies’ discretion wherever possible and thus creating more regulatory headaches. If House Republicans are serious about improving transparency, they should stop blocking the government from providing it.

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