March 10, 2020
Better Data System, Better Information for All

Vice President for Policy and Advocacy

It’s 2019, but our national postsecondary data “system”—the way we collect and use data from colleges and universities that receive state and federal taxpayer dollars—is still decades behind. It’s like trying to solve 21st century problems with a personal computer from 1984.

Our current national postsecondary data system and its underlying infrastructure are burdensome, duplicative, incomplete, and uncoordinated.

In 2016, my colleague Patrick Perry and I led a project with the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP) to imagine how we might create a better, more responsive, and thriving postsecondary education data ecosystem. We wrote:

Leveraging data reported regularly by colleges and universities into useful information is critical to ensuring that more students have access to and succeed in higher education. However, the needs of the higher education community— from state and federal policymakers, to faculty and staff at institutions, to students themselves—are evolving and growing in complexity. The current national postsecondary data infrastructure, with its component systems built for different purposes and owned and operated by different entities using different data definitions, is increasingly inadequate to meet those needs. A variety of entities in the U.S. today produce and report a staggering amount of data on postsecondary students, their enrollment behaviors and patterns, and their eventual outcomes. Yet, significant gaps in the data on which we as postsecondary education researchers and stakeholders currently depend leave important questions largely unanswered.

In other words, we’re drowning in data, but thirsting for useful, useable information.

It’s time for a major upgrade.

The bipartisan College Transparency Act of 2019 takes an important first step by improving the federal postsecondary education data system and infrastructure.

The bill would develop and maintain a secure, privacy-protected postsecondary student-level data system designed to:

The bill would also require that summary information from the system be made available to the public through a user-friendly consumer information website and analytic tool that includes:

We’re excited that the bill expands the availability of data at the program level, which will help inform students about which programs of study at which institutions will yield the best return on their investment. Program-level data will also help institutions monitor and improve the quality of their academic offerings.

The bill includes strong privacy protection, security, and data governance provisions. It even has a provision to avoid duplicated reporting.

Certainly, the devil will be in the details, but we’re encouraged that the bill also establishes a Postsecondary Student Data System Advisory Committee that includes representatives from many stakeholder groups, including subject matter experts and—most important—college students.

Partners for College Affordability and Public Trust supports this bill and broader efforts to evolve our national postsecondary data ecosystem to improve access, affordability, and accountability in higher education. We think students and families, policymakers, and even institutions themselves deserve better information so they can make better choices about their investments in higher education.