Should colleges be more open with students about employment odds?

A  bill pending in the U.S. Congress would allow federally collected data on college students and graduates to be compiled to give prospective students information about where graduates are finding jobs and in what fields.

A  bill pending in the U.S. Congress would allow federally collected data on college students and graduates to be compiled to give prospective students information about where graduates are finding jobs and in what fields.

Mike Kenig is vice chairman of Atlanta-based Holder Construction. In this guest column, he urges passage of the College Transparency Act, which would provide students and parents with employment and graduation data to better inform their choice of where to go to school and what to study.

The bipartisan bill was introduced last year by U.S. Senators Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., Bill Cassidy, R-La., and Sheldon Whitehouse, D-RI. The legislation requires the National Center for Education Statistics to develop a data system in coordination with other federal agencies to harness data they already collect.  The bill would overturn a ban limiting the collating of such data.

The bill gained a potent ally with the recent endorsement of Sen. John Cornyn. The influential Texas Republican signed onto the bill a few weeks ago, enhancing its chances.

According to the sponsors:

The College Transparency Act of 2017 will provide actionable and customizable information for students and families as they consider higher education opportunities by accurately reporting on student outcomes such as enrollment, completion, and post-college success across colleges and majors, while ensuring the privacy of individual students is securely protected. Most importantly, this information will tell students how others with their backgrounds have succeeded at an institution, and help point them toward schools best suited to their unique needs and desired outcomes.

The current college reporting system is overly burdensome on institutions, yet provides little practical information for students and families due to significant gaps in college data reporting. Under the updated system, institutions would securely report privacy-protected, student-level data to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). NCES would be responsible for securely storing student information, working with relevant federal agencies to generate post-college outcomes reports, and presenting the summary information on a user-friendly website for students and families. 

With that background, here is Kenig’s column.

By Mike Kenig

Last month, students in Georgia and all over the country graduated from two- and four-year programs. Thousands more earned short-term certificates and other credentials. They’ve invested time and taken on debt – but do they have the education, skills, and training they need to get jobs in the industries that are hiring?

Most college freshmen say getting a job or getting a better job is the No. 1 reason they decided to pursue higher education in the first place. Unfortunately, there’s not much actual data that helps students discern which programs and which institutions will best help them achieve their career goals.

Certainly, they know how much their program costs and how long it will take to complete – but they don’t have good answers to other critical questions that would help them decide what kind of higher education to pursue. There’s often no way to know whether previous graduates of their program are actually employed. It’s hard to tell what companies in the region are likely to hire them, how much they’ll earn, or what their career ladder looks like.

This information does exist – we just don’t collect it in one place, aggregate the data, or share it publicly so that people can use it to make informed decisions. If parents, students, guidance counselors, and working adults who want to get a better job had access to this information they would use it to make informed decisions about their educations and their careers. And I suspect that people would be more likely to choose a career in growing, high demand industries like mine, which happens to be construction. Industries where skilled people are likely to be hired immediately, where the required education is affordable, and where wages are good.

Seventy percent of construction companies nationwide are having trouble finding qualified workers, according to the Associated General Contractors of America. In many states and locales, there are already more jobs in the trades - like carpentry, electrical, sheet metal and pipe fitting than there are qualified workers to fill them. And construction is a growing field where the jobs pay well – at, near, or above the state's average annual wage of $47,200.

Georgia is already tackling our labor force challenges with data-driven decision making, ranging from state-of-the-art career assessment tools, like YouScience, for our school age children, to the information-rich High Demand Career Initiative that drives our state's workforce development investments. But none of these available resources are able to fully harness the federal education data that's already being collected – data that could fine-tune the tools Georgia already has in place.

There's legislation in Congress called the College Transparency Act – a bill which, if passed into law, would implement a user-friendly website with information about college costs, graduation rates and post-college employment. It's data that would point students to the industries in their region that are hiring, to careers that are in demand, and to the programs that lead to well-paying jobs – whether they're in construction, IT, logistics, or health care.
The College Transparency Act would go a long way toward building our talent pipeline because it would become crystal clear to career-minded students that jobs in construction and other high demand industries are lucrative, and that people with the right skills and credentials don't remain long in the job market.

Businesses are struggling to find qualified workers. If students have the data to make an informed decision, they’ll consider pursuing fields where employers are hiring. Not only would that make a tough decision easier for students, it would go a long way toward growing our local economy.