A modest proposal for facilitating data-driven choices of college and majorent choice of colleges and majors to be data-driven

I recently came across this article about a study at Georgetown looking at the employment prospects and average incomes associated with various majors.  Here is the page at Georgetown devoted to the study itself.

My own specialty isn’t higher education, but I’ve been thinking about it much more recently for a variety of reasons.  One is my involvement in a study of long term trends in the social class origins of students at elite Chinese universities led by my longtime collaborator James Lee, and which includes a large number of outstanding collaborators, of whom I am but one.  For that study, we have been looking for comparison points internationally.  I have been struck by the fact that with the remarkable exception of the University of California, which offers student data in aggregate form at its Statfinder website, there is very little in the way of systematic and comparable aggregated data on student characteristics and outcomes from institutions of higher education, reflecting what I increasingly see as a troubling and probably deliberate lack of transparency.  More importantly, we have been talking about how to follow up this initial study by looking at outcomes for graduates, inspired by the Harvard and Beyond study.  I should add that my outrageous proposal below for a nationwide data collection system on student characteristics and outcomes is but a pipe dream, and has little to do with anything we are hoping to do in our own studies.  Another reason for my interest is simply a recent uptick in the numbers of conversations with colleagues here and elsewhere about what we can do to improve undergraduate education to make it more engaging and rewarding for students.

The conclusions summarized in the Georgetown study article about the differences between the various majors are pretty much as I would expect.  I haven’t looked at the study in enough detail to comment on its methodology or its data, but I applaud the general idea of collecting and analyzing the data on the socioeconomic outcomes of different majors, and for that matter, different types of colleges.  In this day and age, there is really little excuse for the choice of college and major not to be more data driven.

Right now, too many students fly blind when they choose a college and a major.  They make choices about college based on somewhat relevant criteria like the overall academic reputation of the school, as well as largely irrelevant criteria like the physical appearance of the campus, its geographic location, the success of its sports teams, what they’ve heard from friends, or reviews at various websites.  While the choice of major may be very personal, it may also be based on very limited information that students may have acquired in high school or in their first year in college, and may also reflect undue optimism about the prospects after graduation.

Choosing a college and major based on such limited and sometimes uninformative information reflects the general lack of easily accessible data on the outcomes of students from different colleges and majors.  Studies like the one done at Georgetown are relatively uncommon, and typically have limitations that limit their usefulness for planning.  For example, as comprehensive as the Georgetown study is, its reliance on the American Community Survey precludes comparisons of salaries and employment according to the types of institutions that students attended, or their own academic qualifications.

Other published studies by economists have sought to quantify the rewards associated with different majors after accounting for the prestige of the institution and the qualifications of the students, these are also limited in terms of their usefulness for student planning because they typically don’t identify specific institutions, or specific majors.  Such studies typically rely on data from panel surveys that don’t have enough respondents to drill down to specific combinations of institution and major.  Even if such detail were available, the surveys haven’t been in place long enough to look at earnings and employment over the entire career.  Usually they will only have information on outcomes a few years out of college.

In an ideal world, high school seniors deciding which schools to apply to, or which school to attend, would be able to visit a website that would let them see what employment and earning outcomes were like for students with academic qualifications like theirs who graduated of a specified institution and major.  They would be able to enter their SAT or other standardized test scores, their GPA, perhaps some information about their high school, and the name of prospective institution and major, and see how students who resembled them were doing 1, 5, 10, and 20 years after graduation.

At least in principle, this should be possible by linkage of various administrative databases and creation of a student tracking system similar to the ones that many states or school districts are already putting in place for K-12 education.  The federal government to make use of the power it has as the key source of funds for student grants and loans, and faculty research, to demand that academic institutions that receive federal funds comply with participation in a national tracking system that would follow students from senior year in high school through college and into the labor market.  Compliance would involve providing detailed data on applicants, acceptances, and matriculating students, including their academic qualifications as applicants and their subsequent performance in college.  These data would be collected and held in a secure site such as already exist for various forms of administrative data, and could be linked to administrative data on subsequent earnings of graduates from Social Security or various state agencies.

The resulting linked database would allow for a student contemplating a particular combination of college and major to see what prospects were like for someone like themselves.  In many cases, it would help clarify the potential consequences of different choices.  By providing an empirical basis for making important choices, it would probably decrease the influence of less relevant and useful information such as the overall reputation of institutions and majors.  In many cases, I suspect it would help level the playing field between public and private schools and between elite and non-elite schools by confirming in a very convincing way that students who seek to maximize income are generally better off pursuing engineering at a state school than pursuing a liberal arts major at a private university.  There are already academic studies that suggest this, but students need to see results for specific institutions and majors.

What I have in mind is something like the Consumer Reports Used Car Guide where different makes of car from different model years are rated on a variety of criteria based on surveys of owners.  Except in this case, a student could type in their SAT score, their high school GPA, and some other information, and a list of institutions and majors, and get back out some kind of assessment of the average incomes and employment rates of students like themselves at different points in time after graduation.

The suggestion that students should explicitly consider employment prospects and income when choosing institutions and majors may sound cold-blooded and crass, but I would argue that the information should at least be available, and considered alongside whatever information students have available to them.  While many very admirable students have the combination of passion and financial wherewithal to pursue an esoteric major at an expensive private university without worrying about going into debt, the reality is that right now too many students go deeply into debt pursuing degrees that will do nothing for them after they graduate, at expensive institutions of dubious quality.  If they had made their choice based on complete information about the likely prospects of someone with their qualifications who attended that institution and pursued that major, it would be their fault. But too often students choose institutions and majors that do nothing for them because they don’t really have enough useful information available to them, and they have to rely on fundamentally uninformative or irrelevant factors like the reputation of the institution, or some very limited exposure to a particular field in high school or early in their college career.

To go even further out on a limb, I would to see such information about institutions and majors used in making decisions about student grants and loans.  Perhaps it is already, but I don’t know enough about how the system works.  A student who wants to study engineering at a state school should receive more support in the form of grants and loans than a student who wants to study something less practical at an expensive private institution.  If they do receive loans, the limits should be much higher and the interest rates much lower.  Essentially, public investments in individual education in the form of grants or loans should be made according to the same principles as loans in general are made, in the sense that the loan amount and interest rate should be based on the likelihood of it being paid back.  The recent efforts to reign in student loans at for-profit colleges seem like a step in the right direction, in terms of making the allocations data driven, but there is no reason that this principle shouldn’t be extended.

I suspect that making the choice of college and major more data-driven and focused on results for graduates would pressure colleges to redirect their attention away from investments in fancy buildings, star faculty, and sports facilities and emphasize investments that increase the ‘value-added’ of undergraduate majors.  In an ideal world, it would lead to a reorganization of the undergraduate experience where there was more emphasis on the overall design of a major and thought given to the intended ‘product’ and less of the unsavory horse trading that seeks to ensure that the courses that faculty enjoyed teaching were listed as requirements.

Personally, I would like to see a much smaller number of majors, each focused on a recognized discipline, and each with its own distinct theoretical framework, evidentiary basis, and set of methods.  I’m not arguing for turning college into vocational training, rather that majors have more internal consistency and coherence in terms of theory, substance, and method so that graduates are ‘branded’.  This already is the case in engineering and the natural and life sciences, where the content of a physics, chemistry, engineering or biology major is broadly similar across different institutions, but not at all the case in the behavioral or social sciences, or the humanities.  I’ll get into this issue with specific reference to the social sciences in another blog post, but the point remains that as far as I can tell, many humanities and social sciences do not reflect much evidence of a guiding intellect in their design, and at any given institution seem to reflect a path dependent process of addition or deletion of requirements and electives according to the configuration of faculty interests.

Of course, I realize this proposal for large scale collection of longitudinal data on all college bound students from senior year in high school into middle adulthood is wildly unrealistic, most importantly because colleges would object to it.  One thing I have noticed is that colleges don’t seem to like transparency with respect to the characteristics or outcomes of their students that would facilitate comparison shopping based on overall outcomes.  They prefer to control information and report on positive outcomes like successful alumni, and then compete with other institutions on intangibles like reputation.  To the extent that they provide information, it is for the increasingly common and silly college ranking exercises, and that information is generally provided in aggregate form that is easy to manipulate.

With regard to transparency, I would like to give a shout out to my employer, the University of California, which at least provides detailed tabular data on the characteristics of students at their remarkable website: http://statfinder.ucop.edu/.  This is where we should be headed in terms of provision of information to support decision-making.  Visitors at this amazing site can tabulate students according to the socioeconomic profile of their families, ethnicity, geographic origin, and any number of other variables.  They can also look up persistence rates, GPA, and graduation rates by class.  Basically, what we need is something like the University of California Statfinder for ALL institutions of higher education combined, and with additional information about student outcomes after graduation.