Jason Delisle writes for National Affairs about new efforts to determine the real value of a university education.

Information on what a college degree (or a graduate certificate in the Harvard case) costs has always been a bit opaque, but reliable information on what graduates of a particular university?—?let alone a specific program?—?earn in the labor market has been downright nonexistent. To be sure, some institutions and programs survey graduates and publish typical earnings, but that has been the exception, and the reliability of this self-reported information has always been suspect.

That is now changing. The statistics that outed the dubious value proposition hidden in the Harvard program are part of a broad policy agenda championed by an influential coalition of advocates, philanthropic foundations, and lawmakers. At its core, this new transparency and accountability agenda seems simple and uncontroversial enough. Providing better information to policymakers and the public on college prices and student outcomes, particularly post-graduation earnings, should make the higher-education system more effective, efficient, and even more equitable. But a closer look reveals that this new agenda involves a more complicated set of choices for conservative and progressive reformers alike. Understanding these choices, which are often obscured or shrouded in jargon, is the key to fashioning a serious transparency and accountability agenda. …

… Several states now publicly report limited earnings information for students who attended institutions of higher education in the state. Virginia and Florida, for example, match wage records collected through their unemployment-insurance programs to enrollment data provided by certain colleges and universities. They then publish aggregate statistics such as median earnings of former students, usually by institution but sometimes at the more detailed program level. A few states, such as Florida, have even pursued limited policies that tie funding for institutions of higher education to earnings outcomes.