PRESIDENT Obama says federal college-aid programs should be expanded - and in return, schools need to be held accountable for their costs and results.
Republican candidate Mitt Romney thinks students should shop around for the best deal and get help from their parents.
Their plans may differ, yet they are similar in one way: They expose the glaring gap of reliable information about colleges' success rates.
Parents can't shop around and schools can't be held accountable if there is no data available. So high school juniors from well-off families make their decisions based on how friendly people were during their tours of pretty campuses, while poor kids gamble that a college degree is worth the risk of going into debt.
A bipartisan initiative in the Senate, pushed by Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., might help address this lack of information.
For universities to be efficient or produce better outcomes, we have to collect and disseminate data on both the costs and payoffs of obtaining a degree.
Although they are in the knowledge business, colleges are often ignorant of the "value added" their students might gain from critical thinking and leadership skills.
They are also reticent to tell the public what they already know - for example, data on the costs versus the benefits of remedial education, on how many papers students write, and on what the average annual income is of graduates from their school.
The public craves information on colleges, as shown by the popularity of magazine college rankings. Although we learn about the earnings of some professional-school graduates, in general we don't know much about the success of undergraduates.
Why can't the colleges themselves provide, in a uniform fashion, more information to potential customers, donors and taxpayers?
Enter Sens. Wyden and Rubio. If Wyden, who is relatively liberal, and Rubio, who is conservative, agree that more is better when it comes to providing consumers and policy makers with facts about education costs, remedial instruction and postgraduate average annual earnings, there is no reason colleges should resist.
Some educators will object that a focus on average future earnings is a misleading measure.
Universities provide what economists call a signaling or screening function. The bachelor's degree certification is supposed to give employers some reasonable assurance that the student is fairly bright, a pretty persistent and disciplined worker, and one who is quite knowledgeable about the world.