Americans cruising the grocery aisles prior to 1973 were likely to find no nutrition labels—or a mish-mash of information and unsubstantiated health claims—on the exploding number of processed foods. Even as the scientific understanding of diet and health rapidly advanced, consumers weren’t being told what was actually in their food.
When it comes to educational programs, we might as well be living in 1970. We have a growing understanding of what works in postsecondary education and workforce training, but we’re leaving Americans in the dark about what’s actually in the programs they’re consuming.
Federal law actually blocks our ability to chart the progress of individual learners and the returns to education over time. And the sort of data that would help Americans compare the value of educational investments is often siloed in ways that render it impossible to consume. Better information is unlikely to result in perfect decisions. But we could move beyond a paradigm where would-be students are asked to do the educational equivalent of eating healthier—without the benefit of nutrition labels.
Fortunately, there’s movement at both the state and federal level to create much-needed transparency for students, policymakers and institutions themselves. And U.S. Department of Education recently released preliminary data on student debt loads at the individual program level, and it is slated to release similar data on median earnings soon. When they are made fully public-facing, these data will allow consumers, for example, to compare the value (as measured by average debt-to-earnings) of an associate’s in accounting at the local community college to that of a bachelor’s in business at the nearest four-year institution.
But the U.S. Department of Education, alone, is woefully under equipped to build the fully connected and open data system the country truly needs.
In an age of technological sophistication, the average person needs more than just educational data to answer their most pressing questions: What jobs are available in my region? What skills and credentials do I need in order to get those jobs? Where can I go to get those skills and credentials? What can I expect to earn after investing in education and training? It’s no wonder so many Americans end up lost.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Imagine a future future where publicly-available data power a market for products and services designed to provide navigation and guidance to millions of Americans. Comparing education providers could be as accessible as comparing homes on Zillow (although the decision to purchase is arguably more complex). Individuals could access dynamic maps, personalized to their goals and skills, for navigating from unemployment to a good job. Or they could pull up an app—a Feedly or Flipboard for local jobs—that generates a custom list of job opportunities based on their educational attainment, employment history and goals.
The good news is that we already have the data to make this future a reality. The federal government, states and individual educational institutions spend billions on data collection and analysis—and they are expanding those efforts.
The federal government alone has spent more than $700 million on its Statewide Longitudinal Data Systems Grant Program since 2005, and a new round of applications for the program is underway. The project already has provided 47 states, the District of Columbia, and several U.S. territories with grants to link K12, higher education, and workforce data systems. Lumina Foundation backed nonprofit, Credential Engine is taking critical steps to “count” and document the multiplicity of credentials already in existence—work that is, in many ways, a predicate to making good on the promise of better data by providing education consumers with the tools to consider educational alternatives with the same ease that they compare flights on Expedia, or consumer goods on Amazon.
Rendering the data useful will, of course, also require navigation tools that present the information in ways that are intuitive and provide critical context for individuals and the people who guide their decisions—high school advisors, career counselors and workforce board staff. “We can create ‘perfect’ information, but if it’s not the information people want and need, it’s not going to be enough,” says Amber Garrison Duncan, strategy director at Lumina Foundation. “How do we conceptualize the data to make it useful to actual people?” The Data Quality Campaign has made the case that “those who most need the data still don’t have it.”
Google’s new Pathways project illustrates both the opportunity and the challenge to open up data to consumers. The company believes that search can resolve the information disconnect between opportunity seekers, postsecondary providers and employers. They’re designing a search tool that will help people find reliable information about local and regional jobs, the skills and training they require, and nearby education and training providers that have proven effective in providing the requisite skills.
It’s a challenge that Google is more than up to technologically. And advances in cloud computing have dramatically reduced the cost and accelerated the potential pace of doing this work. But the collective will to get the work done remains hard, even for the tech giant. It’s telling that Google is starting Pathways as a pilot in a single state, Virginia. The announcement of the project reveals why: they must partner with the State of Virginia, the Virginia Community College System, local employers, and others to actually get the information in a searchable format online. Even in one state, getting everyone aligned is a monumental task.
No doubt, making such data broadly available to the public poses privacy and other concerns. Individual information should be safeguarded—period. But we can, and in many cases already have, developed protocols for that. For example, BrightHive, a public benefit corporation building data collaboratives, has worked with numerous state and national partners to develop and implement rigorous approaches to privacy-preserving data transparency. “It’s critical to protect individual privacy,” says Matt Gee, BrightHive’s cofounder and CEO. “The challenge is to not let the fear of data misuse lead to the very real harm of data missed use. ‘Do no harm’ is too low a bar for these public data systems that we are all paying for. We should instead insist that our public data actually create public benefit.”
With the right investment—and a lot of collective will—we can bring states, colleges, and employers together to solve the problem. Making publicly held data sets, and countless others, available directly to individuals through search and other tools could dramatically improve their ability to make informed career and education decisions.
We just have to decide that it shouldn’t be easier to compare hotels online than it is to find basic information about education and training.
This piece originally appeared in Forbes. To access the original article, please click here.