Tips for Making Matches with the NSC StudentTracker

November 15, 2017

By Bill DeBaun, Director of Data and Evaluation

Many NCAN member programs use the National Student Clearinghouse’s (NSC) StudentTracker service to keep tabs on their students’ postsecondary enrollment and completion outcomes. This service speeds up the process of determining whether students enrolled in, persisted at, and completed a postsecondary credential or degree. StudentTracker is the number-one topic that members ask me about, and members are always curious about how they can improve the “match rate” of the data that they receive from the service. This blog post will provide some tips and tricks for improving that match rate.

Just because a program submits a student through StudentTracker does not mean you will necessarily receive data back on that student. This omission could be due to one or more of the following:

  1. The student may not have actually enrolled in a postsecondary institution;
  2. The student may have chosen to place a “FERPA block” on their academic record. In this case, the NSC cannot release their student-level information. However, note that all students who are “matched” are accounted for in the StudentTracker aggregate report, whether they have a FERPA block or not. Let’s say, for example, that a student has a FERPA block on their records from institution A but does not have a block on their records from institution B. Then the student-level detail file will only show the records from institution B (i.e., a partial record for this student will be presented. Nationally, about 5 percent of students have FERPA blocks);
  3. The student’s postsecondary institution may not participate with the NSC. The NSC currently covers 97% (19.8 million) of currently enrolled postsecondary students from 98% of all public and private institutions, but coverage does vary within sectors. If, for example, a student has attended two institutions, one of which does participate with the NSC while the other does not, then the student-level detail file will show a partial record for this student (i.e., their records from only the participating institution will be shown);
  4. The student’s postsecondary institution may not have submitted current-term data by the time your program submits their request file. In this case, the “newest” data will not display on the student-level detail file. If this student is brand new to postsecondary education, then they may show as unmatched and no records will be displayed;
  5. There is a discrepancy/typo in the high school or college data (previously submitted to the NSC) – then it’s likely that the record housed at NSC will differ from the information the program has for the student;
  6. There are multiple students with the same first name, last name, date of birth combination. If there is no other identifying data to distinguish which student is the “correct” one, then the NSC will err of the side of caution and not return any records for this student; and/or
  7. There may be data discrepancies in the program’s StudentTracker submission file which prevent students from being matched and returned on StudentTracker reports.

We want to try to cut back on the last item in the list above. Here are some tips and tricks that will hopefully improve your program’s match rate with the NSC.

  • DO NOT put nicknames in the first name field! Especially DO NOT put something like: William “Bill” or Peter “Pete” or Elizabeth “Liz”
  • DO put something like: “Peter” or “Pete” (with no quotations). The NSC’s algorithm will search for different common permutations of a name to try to make a match.
  • DO NOT use periods, punctuation, or numbers as part of a name.
  • DO use Sr or Jr (no periods) and Roman numerals such as I, II, etc. in the suffix fields.
  • DO NOT include suffixes in the last name field (e.g., Bill P. Andrews, Jr. should not have “Andrews, Jr.” in the last name field). Put suffixes like this in the name suffix column separate from the last name.
  • DO NOT put full middle names. The first letter of the middle name is sufficient.
  • DO put middle initials whenever possible. This may seem counterintuitive, but the first initial can help to break ties among students with otherwise identical names (Joe A. Smith vs. Joe R. Smith). Spelling out the full middle name just provides one more place where data could mismatch. For example, if you know that Rebecca’s middle name is pronounced phonetically “Kelly,” it might be spelled Kelli, Kellie, Kelley, or Kelly, and it might even be that you misheard it and it is actually Kelsey. Putting any one of these spelled out names when the name is actually spelled a different way might cause a mismatch whereas just putting a “K” for the middle initial will help to preserve a match.

The NSC addresses many questions about matching and reporting in a reportabout its StudentTracker for High School service. It describes the efforts NSC has undertaken to try to increase match rates:

Name variations account for the largest number of inexact matches that we encounter, and we have developed robust algorithms to handle most of them with very high levels of confidence. For example, common misspellings, hyphenated names and shortened names are all taken into account in our proprietary logic. Our algorithm allows matches when names differ within a small tolerance level, or by common nicknames and Anglicizations of foreign names, provided that other data elements support the match. This logic incorporates our experience in working with the historical data that we house – well over a billion enrollment records covering 21 years. Our algorithms also accommodate common data entry errors that appear in names and dates of birth (again, provided that they are corroborated by other data elements).

For a more technical look at matching with the National Student Clearinghouse StudentTracker, consider Dynarski, Hemelt, and Hyman’s The Missing Manual: Using National Student Clearinghouse Data to Track Postsecondary Outcomes(2013).

Worth remembering is that there are trade-offs between efficiency and accuracy in a system like this. Programs will need to identify their own tolerance for the balance between these two principles. By using the StudentTracker service, programs can upload large lists of students in one batch and receive results for many of them all at once, saving time and effort. Advisors individually contacting students may be able to ascertain enrollment and completion data that is unmatched by the NSC for one reason or another and consequently get “credit” for that student’s outcomes. On the other hand, programs may also receive data on non-responsive students through the StudentTracker. Especially as programs grow the number of students they serve, a hybrid model of getting enrollment and completion information for the bulk of students and supplementing with advisor outreach may be optimal and lead to the most comprehensive understanding of these student outcomes.

Data mismatches are frustrating for many programs that work with this data, especially because programs often feel that the data they receive underrepresent their positive student outcomes. What is clear is that the National Student Clearinghouse is committed to continuously improving its matching algorithm, coverage of postsecondary institutions and students, and the process by which programs use StudentTracker to obtain data on their students’ outcomes.

With special thanks to the NSC StudentTracker Services team and especially Jill Indugula.

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