What's a college education really worth to you?
While that question may be difficult to answer, a new bill is attempting to give families a bit more clarity about what they might expect to gain from a given college or university.
The Student Right to Know Before You Go Act is being co-sponsored by a bipartisan group of senators that includes Mark Warner (D-Vir.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), and aims to make colleges and universities more responsive to students' employment outcomes by mandating that institutions receiving federal student aid dollars collect and publish statistics on past graduates—including graduation rates, average student loan obligations and average starting salaries. (See Table Below.)
While many colleges already collect such information, few make it available to prospective students as they consider their choice of schools, which, according to the bill's backers, makes it next to impossible for families to make informed decisions as to where they should invest tens of thousands of dollars each year.
Many high school seniors heading to college this fall "likely have real questions about what value they are getting for their money," Senator Warner said in a statement. According to Warner, the proposed legislation would provide them with "information already collected by states and schools, and eventually post it online where it will be accessible directly to [them] as they make one of the most important investments they'll make during their lifetimes."
"Gone are the days when a college degree guarantees a steady and well-paying career in return," Senator Rubio wrote in an op-ed earlier this week touting the bill, adding that "students and families deserve to understand the costs they are undertaking to obtain a higher education."
Education on the Defensive
The bill comes just as close to 2 million students are set to graduate college this spring, and as colleges and universities are being assailed from every direction for providing an education that many no longer believe offers a justifiable return on the sizable sums students and their families shell out annually.
A new book, "Is College Worth It?", by former Secretary of Education William Bennett, caused a recent stir on college and university campuses by suggesting that only 150 of America's 3,500 colleges are actually worth the cost of attendance.
Also, a disconcerting new study released just last week from the consulting firm McKinsey & Co. revealed that one in three college graduates "did not feel college prepared them well for employment." What's more, half of graduates say that they would pick a different major, or a different college altogether, if they had it to do all over again.
The new bill is aimed at curbing that sense of buyer's remorse, say supporters, by arming students and their families with the data they need to compare "apples to apples"—assessing the comparative value of institutions.
"It's kind of amazing that some colleges still say that they're not preparing you to get a job specifically," said Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of Edvisors.com and an expert on financial aid. "If someone's borrowing money to pay for college, there's a fair presumption that they will earn enough money to pay it back."
Separately, educators in K-12 classrooms all over the country are also under mounting pressure from a number of advocacy groups and the Obama administration's Race to the Top initiative, which seeks to provide cash-strapped states with funding for education if they agree to implement stricter teacher evaluations based on student outcomes on state-wide exams.
A Real 'Game-Changer'
If it passes, the bill has the potential to be a "game-changer," some experts believe, potentially usurping U.S. News & World Report's annual ranking of the nation's top colleges and universities as a well-worn barometer of institutional value.
"Despite huge and growing individual and taxpayer investments in higher education," said Amy Laitinen, a deputy director for higher education at the New America Foundation, "we know shockingly little about how students are doing."
"This bill would change that," she added. "It has the potential to be a real game-changer for students and families."
However, some policy makers, including Tennessee Republican Lamar Alexander, the top Republican on the Senate education committee, have expressed privacy concerns about an online warehouse of sensitive student data.
Other critics say colleges and universities shouldn't be held responsible for something they can't legitimately be expected to control: the economy.
Still, the bill's sponsors and consumer advocates both say it's high time to introduce a sense of cost-benefit analysis into the college selection process.
"There's been a needed focus on access to higher education, but it's time to bring value into the equation," said Senator Wyden, Instead of students and families making "blind decisions" on such a costly investment, Wyden adds, the new bill would "empower them with a wide range of information about what their choices will mean in the working world."
NAF's Laitinen says she's heartened to see the cooperation the bill has engendered among policy makers.
"Bipartisanship is an endangered species in D.C.," she said. "It's great to see members of Congress put partisanship aside to help students and families make one of the most critical decisions they'll ever make."
—By CNBC's Jermaine Taylor. Follow him on Twitter