Nation's Data Infrastructure Needs Improvement

October 26, 2015
Carrie Warick, Director of Partnerships and Policy

Recently, the Institute of Higher Education Policy released a report, Weighing the Options for Improving the National Postsecondary Data Infrastructure, that outlines the possible paths forward to improving the country's postsecondary education data system. The paper points out that the current system needs improvements to help students (evaluate costs and quality), policymakers (evaluate financial aid programs and enforce accountability mechanisms), and institutions (inform decisions and help students succeed). The report explores seven options for improving the current system, and ultimately recommends building a Student Unit Record Data System, even though there are political hurdles to doing so.

In the last Higher Education Act reauthorization, the House education committee added a clause to the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 prohibiting the U.S. Department of Education from building a student-unit record system. At the time, data security was a paramount concern and the ability to measure success outcomes for today's post-traditional students, who are mostly uncounted in today's federal data, was not on the radar. 

Now, seven years later, there are many questions that federal aid can not answer. Of concern to NCAN members, the Pell Grant recipient graduation rate is first on the list. While newly released data (from the College Scorecard) includes a measure of this, it is incomplete and will not be complete until 2019. Additionally, part-time and transfer students are not currently included in federally reported graduation rates. Limited data about these groups will be added to the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) in 2017.

This authors argue, based on a survye of over 50 higher education data experts, that while overturning the federal ban could be politically difficult, that the benefits of an adaptable data system that is financed and governed by the federal government is the best answer to both meet the needs of students, policymakers, and institutions and reduce institutional burden. The authors also show, using the survey results, that the most feasible solution is improving the IPEDS system beyond the current changes planned.

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