How to make data meaningful for today’s students

The data infrastructure of higher education is broken: we can't answer basic questions about the outcomes colleges are producing. Action from Congress could make a difference

This year in the United States, over 21 million students will enroll in one of over 6,000 schools. How will they fare?

Will they graduate? Transfer? Wind up employed? Will their investment in college be worth it?

Given the current data infrastructure of higher education, we won’t know the answer to any of those fundamental questions. This severely hampers students’, parents’, and the federal government’s ability to make smart investments in college. The lack of data also prevents higher education from moving forward: without good data on outcomes, stakeholders are locked into an input-based regulatory structure that constrains innovation.

The system today

Higher education data today is collected by colleges and universities themselves, is largely self-reported, and until very recently, included little data on the outcomes of part-time students, or of students who had transferred from another institution. If a student attends multiple institutions, a reliable record of his experiences is weak at best.

This makes it nearly impossible to assess performance of schools. Do low graduation rates mean that colleges are failing students? Or are some institutions helping students traverse an expensive higher ed landscape in an affordable way? We have no idea.

Collecting data at the institutional level also means that we know very little about which programs at each school are effectively equipping students with the skills they need to succeed—and which are not. This makes it very hard for students to make good decisions about where to attend school. While there are school rankings for some majors, these ranking systems are input driven, and say little about the outcomes students can expect to achieve.

Current data practices make it especially difficult to assess innovative and online programs. The data we have on each school doesn’t differentiate between the outcomes of a school’s on-campus population and its online population. Because online students are more likely to attend part-time, the quality of the data on these programs are weaker overall. Even for fully online schools, reported outcomes may only reflect the experiences of the small number of students who enrolled as full-time, first-time freshman.

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