Data Experts Aim to Help Students Make Better Postsecondary Decisions

by Christina Pena
February 11, 2016

The Workforce Data Quality Campaign organized a panel discussion on “Postsecondary Data Policy: Better Information for Students and Practitioners,” at the National Skills Coalition’s annual Skills Summit, held earlier this week near Washington, DC. 

WDQC’s Director, Rachel Zinn, moderated the panel discussion with experts offering their analysis of federal and state progress on providing postsecondary education and training outcomes.


Mark Schneider of the American Institutes for Research (AIR) highlighted the worrying trend of more students failing to complete college, or choosing majors that will never provide them with earnings that meet their financial expectations.

Building on his experience working in the federal government and developing the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), he went on to form College Measures, a partnership between AIR and Optimity Advisors, LLC, which provides online postsecondary data for two- and four-year degrees on a state-by-state basis. The initiative has made progress in providing earnings outcomes for several states, down to the program level, through the Economic Success Metrics initiative, but progress has been slow in part because of varied interpretations of the law. He hopes to expand the number of states participating in the program. He concluded by emphasizing that students need to know that majors matter more than institutions when it comes to earnings outcomes, and that they need this information to make realistic plans for their future.

Jenna Leventoff of WDQC reviewed our recent survey of state progress against our 13-point “blueprint” on workforce data systems. The blueprint includes metrics relevant to postsecondary education, such as determining employment outcomes and publishing scorecards for students and workers.

States have made respectable strides towards these goals. Twenty-two states report having “Achieved” the “Knowing if Graduates Get Jobs” metric, which asks whether states can determine employment and earnings outcomes for graduates of workforce and education programs. Another 17 report being “In Progress” towards that goal. Thirty-nine states said that they were “In Progress” or have already “Achieved” the ability to provide aggregate program and institution level data to help students compare programs and make career decisions. WDQC also monitors progress on the number of education and workforce programs included in state longitudinal data systems. Although states have become increasingly successful at obtaining information from public institutions, they have been less successful with private institutions, save for a few exceptions such as New Jersey. WDQC has a new online tool that allows visitors to explore these and other indicators of progress, as well as legislation and additional developments relevant to workforce data systems on the State Solutions page.

Neal Gibson of the Arkansas Research Center (ARC) echoed the frustration that students, parents and policymakers have faced in trying to access better postsecondary data, and reviewed recent developments in his state.  

He described how policymakers in Arkansas understood the urgency of the situation and passed legislation last year to require reporting on employment and earnings outcomes for degree and certificate holders from state-supported postsecondary institutions. Earlier, ARC worked with College Measures, on the ESM-program mentioned above, to provide earnings information by program and degree (available online). ARC is working to add data from high schools as a next step in this project. Looking ahead, he sees the implementation of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) as requiring more information on cross-state data than what has been possible with the Wage Record Interchange System (WRIS) I and II, and this may create new pressures for cooperation and collaboration. He said that most of the relevant data are out there, but that much work remains to be done in bringing it all together in useful ways for students and their families.

Mamie Voight of the Institute for Higher Education Policy reviewed postsecondary data developments at the federal level.

She welcomed the recent release of the U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard, which includes earnings outcomes for students across postsecondary institutions, searchable via one website. She highlighted some of the tool's weaknesses, such as its omission of non-federally aided students. Turning to legislative action, the bi-partisan Student Right to Know Before You Go Act would amend the Higher Education Act to require that postsecondary institutions provide information on student retention, student debt, graduation rates, and median annual earnings at two, six and 15 years after completion. The Act would allow for more inclusive and efficient data collection by overturning the ban on a national student record system. A growing number of organizations have come to support such a system. She mentioned efforts by the Postsecondary Data Collaborative to help generate broader stakeholder support. Even with the promise of better postsecondary information at the federal level, said Voight, state systems will remain necessary for reporting and informing specific regional and local interests. Going forward, she would like to see federal and state data systems become more effective at working together.

WDQC would like to thank USA Funds for their sponsorship of this session!

For more information on postsecondary data policy, see this fact sheet from the National Skills Coalition’s 2016 Skills Summit.