Neal McCluskey

It seems easy: collect data, process data, publish data, and everyone becomes better informed and wiser. It’s seductive, and it was clear listening to President Barack Obama and Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) that both are under data’s spell when it comes to budget-busting higher education. But the main college problem isn’t a shortage of useful information -- it’s massive federal student aid discouraging its use.

In his State of the Union address, Obama celebrated federal student aid but then lamented that “taxpayers cannot continue to subsidize the soaring cost of higher education.” His solution? Change college accreditation to include measures of “affordability and value,” and publish information such as loan default rates to help consumers become better informed.

Rubio’s take on the affordability problem was almost identical: laud student aid, lament price inflation, and declare that “we must give students more information on the costs and benefits of the student loans they are taking out.”

But Rubio is doing more than talking. He has co-sponsored a bill with Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) that would create a massive database of individual-level education and earnings information. The data would eventually be used to tie student outcomes to schools. But useful information is already in abundance, yet every year millions of students major in things with little prospect for good pay, or attend schools with poor outcomes.

The infamous U.S. News and World Report rankings have many flaws, but a degree from a top-25, national university almost certainly carries more weight than from a 30th-ranked regional. U.S. News also furnishes four- and six-year graduation rates for most schools, as well as lots of financial aid information. And U.S. News is hardly alone in the college-evaluation game, with numerous outlets ranking schools based on varying criteria.

What about the employment and earnings prospects for different fields of study? In addition to the Bureau of Labor Statistics furnishing data for myriad occupations, provides breakdowns of starting and mid-career earnings for numerous majors. Bachelor’s in psychology? The average starting salary is $35,200. Music? That kicks off at $34,600. Petroleum engineering? $98,000.

Despite such information being readily available, every year throngs of new grads walk off with diplomas in poorly paying areas. According to federal figures, in the 2009-10 academic year there were 97,216 bachelor’s degrees awarded in psychology, 91,842 in performing and visual arts, but only 72,654 in all varieties of engineering.

Neal McCluskey

Neal McCluskey is associate director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom and author of the book Feds in the Classroom: How Big Government Corrupts, Cripples, and Compromises American Education.

TOWNHALL DAILY: Be the first to read Neal McCluskey's column. Sign up today and receive daily lineup delivered each morning to your inbox.