Modernizing postsecondary data for 21st century students

August 14, 2018

Students, policymakers, institutions and others should have access to clear information on postsecondary education programs including their employment and wage outcomes. The Workforce Data Quality Campaign’s latest paper, Workforce success relies on transparent postsecondary data, reviews why existing data systems cannot provide key information on postsecondary programs and explains the changes needed to provide students and others with the information they need.

When making decisions about which programs to invest in, students and policymakers should have information on program costs, completion rates, and employment and wage outcomes. The information should be comparable for programs across the nation and provided over a public, online dashboard that also displays other outcome information such as student retention, loan repayment, default rates, and rates of further education. The website should also include and be searchable by important student characteristics including student demographics and financial aid. The information should be based on student-level data but aggregated at the program level in ways that ensure the security and privacy of personally identifiable information.

Federal policies have stopped short, and even prevented, the provision of this important information. Congress has banned the creation of a data system based on postsecondary student-level data. The Department of Education provides the College Scorecard, but data for the Scorecard are limited to federally aided students. Also, the Scorecard does not show results for individual programs of study, only for institutions as a whole, even though evidence shows labor market outcomes for students vary more by program of study than by institution.

One recent proposal for reauthorizing the Higher Education Act, the “Promoting Real Opportunity, Success, and Prosperity through Education Reform” (PROSPER) Act, would authorize a dashboard with information on individual programs of study, but would still draw data only from federally-aided students, missing thirty percent of student data. The bipartisan College Transparency Act, on the other hand, would overturn the ban on student level data, and direct the Department of Education to create a student-level data network and post better information online about programs across the country.

This paper goes into greater depth explaining these issues — how current policies fall short and the need for a federal student level data network with a public-facing website, a website that would provide students, education leaders, and policymakers with the information needed to make more informed decisions about postsecondary education.