Postsecondary Data Featured at Commission Hearing

Christina Pena
October 24, 2016

Conversations about education and workforce data dominated the first public hearing of the bi-partisan Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking last week. The Commission called on witnesses representing research, education, statistical, social service, and advocacy organizations.

WDQC Director Rachel Zinn delivered testimony on a panel focused on postsecondary and workforce data. She addressed the importance of drawing on wage record data, its various sources that the Commission may want to consider, the importance of using labor market information, and incorporating emerging best practices in privacy and security. She also called for lifting the ban on a national student record system, which took effect as part of the last reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA) in 2008. She pointed out that such a system would allow for better and more efficient data matching to view trends on student progress and employment outcomes.

Federal efforts to produce nationwide information on student outcomes have been limited because of the ban. For example, the College Scorecard provides information on expected earnings, but only by institution, not by program, and only for first-time, full-time federally-aided students. This means that the experiences of many students are not captured in the Scorecard, which results in an incomplete picture for prospective students as well as for policymakers. States have gone farther in some cases, but separate arrangements have to be made when they want to find out what happens to students who transfer to another institution or go on to work in another state.

As the hearing day progressed, the Commissioners acknowledged that the call for lifting a ban seemed overwhelming. (Watch in particular the testimony of representatives from the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, the Institute for Higher Education Policy, New America, and Young Invincibles). One panelist later in the hearing, however, argued against a national student record system. Emmett McGroarty of the American Principles Project expressed his concern that a national system would provide the federal government with too much information about its citizens, and that the provision of data would cause discomfort for students. Earlier, Tom Allison of Young Invincibles suggested that student views on technology and data have changed since 2008. With the rapidly growing cost of education over the past decade, students are demanding information that a federal system could more reliably and efficiently provide.

Mark Schneider of the American Institutes for Research and College Measures, which shows return on investment for a number of states, noted that even though the federal government is banned from holding student level data, numerous individual level data systems already exist across many agencies. He emphasized the painstaking process involved in matching data that have been gathered for different purposes; explaining that the creation of each data system and associated legal agreements is a “handcrafted, bespoke process.” He said that even if the passage of a national student record system is “another fight for another day,” the Commission should make as one of its priorities finding ways to better facilitate the matching of data to show taxpayers and students the returns on their investments in postsecondary education.

The Commission plans to post the written submissions that accompanied the oral testimonies to its website.

The next public meeting of the Commission will take place November 4 at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC. The Commission is also accepting written submissions until November 14th.

WDQC has supported legislation that calls for the creation of a federal student record system to provide all students and other stakeholders with better information on postsecondary programs: the Student Right to Know Before You Go Act. For more information, see our letter to Congress and this fact sheet with the National Skills Coalition.