Most of the alumni of more than half of the nation's colleges and universities fail to outearn a typical high school graduate six years after enrolling, according to new data from the Department of Education.
The figure, gleaned from a federal analysis of former undergraduate students' tax records, is among the new information the Obama administration made public Saturday as part of an effort to end the era of opacity that has marked the U.S. higher education experience.
For generations, American families have sent their children to college in the hope that, after years of study and thousands of dollars in costs, a degree would ultimately be worth it. Now they'll be armed with evidence, some of it available for the first time, such as typical earnings for former students of their chosen college and whether they're making progress in paying off their student debt.
The launch of a new government website housing former students' debt levels and annual earnings for every college in the U.S. that accepts federal student aid comes as some policymakers and higher-education experts increasingly question the value of certain schools and degrees. More than 40 million Americans collectively owe nearly $1.3 trillion on their student loans, and while former students are left to suffer the consequences of dubious credentials and record debt burdens, colleges often get away scot-free.
"As college costs and student debt keep rising, the choices that Americans make when searching for and selecting a college have never been more important," President Barack Obama said in his weekly address. "That’s why everyone should be able to find clear, reliable, open data on college affordability and value."
The White House is betting that by arming households with new information about how students from certain schools fare during and after college, it will transform a sector that has largely escaped accountability for jacking up tuition or larding students with unaffordable debts that ultimately are backstopped by taxpayers.
"Many of the incentives in higher education do little to promote an affordable, high-quality education -- and often even work against promoting affordability," according to an Education Department report.
The administration's college ratings project was driven in part by "the concern that too many students have their futures shortchanged because they attend schools that do not serve them well -- either because the institution doesn’t get the student to graduation, or because the student completes the course of study but finds their credential or degree is not valued in the labor market -- and then are left saddled with debt but with few opportunities," according to the Education Department.
In fact, the department noted, "at some schools, the data suggest that students cannot expect that a college certificate or degree will create an earnings premium" relative to what a typical high school graduate earns.
In recent years, the gap in annual earnings between college graduates and high school graduates has widened not because college degree holders are earning more, but rather because high school graduates are earning less.
That has prompted a debate in Washington over whether college is always worth the cost. The Education Department wants students and their families to evaluate schools in part based on whether the cost of attendance, including possible student debt, is worth the investment.
"There are colleges dedicated to helping students of all backgrounds learn without saddling them with debt. We should hold everybody to that standard," Obama said. "Our economic future depends on it."