A common ground proposal to improve higher education data
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This month, millions of students will head off to college hoping to earn the skills and degrees they need to secure well-paying jobs in today’s economy. This year’s entering students will be the best-equipped in history to select a school that meets those needs, thanks to the consumer-friendly College Scorecard website released by the Department of Education last fall that made public for the first time important outcome metrics like what percentage of an institution’s students are earning more than a high school graduate and the proportion of students that are able to begin paying down their loans.

Having this type of data readily available plays an important role in ensuring that students and their families can make informed decisions about where to invest their valuable time and resources. This is especially true given the reality that the vast majority of our country’s four-year public and private, non-profit institutions would currently be considered “drop-out factories” if they were held to the same standards as our high schools. According to the College Scorecard data, the average four-year nonprofit or public college has a graduation rate hovering right around 50%—meaning students who enter have a paltry 1 in 2 chance of success.

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With drop-out rates like that, it is no surprise that many students (especially those who never finish their degree) are unable to find the decent-paying jobs they need to help them pay back their loans.

We recently released a series of reports calling out these numbers and urging Congress to use the huge investment of federal taxpayer dollars we spend on higher education to ensure colleges are improving those outcomes. Some of the players who prefer the no-strings-attached funding status quo criticized our use of the College Scorecard data, despite the fact that it continues to be the best source of consumer information available. They pointed out, rightly so, that the data is limited in its ability to paint a full picture of how well all students are faring across campuses—specifically, that the graduation rates account only for first-time, full-time students, meaning that any student who attends part-time or transfers from one institution to another is not counted. That means only 57% of college-goers at four-year public institutions and 65% of college-goers at four-year private, non-profit institutions are represented in the reported graduation rates.

Fortunately, there is widespread agreement about these data shortcomings and the need to address them. This includes researchers looking to gain a better sense of the value individual colleges are providing to students, taxpayers looking to ensure their massive federal investment is paying off, and the institutions themselves who worry that the current data is being used to draw incomplete conclusions about their performance with students. With that kind of unanimity across the board, fixing this imperfect data in the next reauthorization of Higher Education Act should be a no-brainer.

There’s more good news. Not only do stakeholders throughout the higher education system bemoan the limitations of the current data, there is an obvious way to fix them: lifting the ban on using what is known as a “student unit record.” This type of system would allow us to track outcomes at the student-level, including part-time students and those who enter one school, transfer, and graduate from another. And it would address limitations in the other metrics of the College Scorecard as well, giving us a full picture of how students are faring in the job market, rather than only the earnings data for students with loans on which the current system relies. It would also allow policymakers, and students, to see how different schools are doing with different kinds of students (for example, low-income students who receive federal Pell grants to help them pay for college). That change would allow us to shine a light on achievement gaps as we now can do in our elementary and high schools—and seeing those gaps clearly is the first step toward closing them.

It’s rare in politics to have such ubiquitous agreement around a problem. Those who both hailed and criticized our reports on the College Scorecard can agree that its data has limits that could impede efforts to make much-needed improvements to our higher education system. And unlike many problems we face as a country, this one has an obvious fix. The ball is now squarely in Congress’s court to lift the ban that blocks us from seeing the full picture of how our institutions of higher education are delivering for America’s students.

Tamara Hiler is a Senior Policy Advisor and Lanae Erickson Hatalsky is a Vice President at Third Way, a center-left think tank in Washington, D.C.


The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.