What the Open-Data Movement Means for the Future of Colleges

During the partial shutdown of the federal government, which ended Wednesday night after 16 days, it was the barricades closing national parks and monuments that received a disproportionate share of media attention related to the budget standoff.

Few seemed to care that useful online databases of statistics about higher education, such as the College Navigator and the College Scorecard, went dark (except a handful of reporters and perhaps those who didn’t want to take time off from the college search).

The last time there was a government shutdown, in 1995-96, the Internet was still in its infancy, so few people turned to the Web to hunt down the enrollment of a particular college or find out its price tag. Information about colleges was largely denied to the masses unless you took the trouble of contacting a college directly or went to your local library or bookstore to pick up a copy of the latest college guidebook.

Today, data collected by the government about higher education are prevalent on the Web. That’s why, during this shutdown, it was relatively easy to locate any fact or figure you wanted about an institution by going to Web sites operated by the Education Trust, the New America Foundation, or The Chronicle.

In the last few years, thanks to technology, private companies and nonprofit organizations have taken on the task of organizing, visualizing, and broadcasting reams of government data—and not just about colleges, of course.

That open-data movement is important to consider as higher-education institutions ponder the future of President Obama’s plan for a new ratings system for colleges. Given the gridlock in Washington, it’s unlikely that the president’s plan will go very far, even as part of a reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.

While the ratings system is key to achieving the president’s goal of tying federal aid to the performance of colleges, it’s the underlying data on graduation rates and graduates’ earnings that form the basis of any consumer tool about higher education. For the most part, the Obama administration, on its own, could require the collection of data sets needed for the ratings.

Once the government makes those pieces of data available, then colleges should expect the private sector—which has been eager to provide bottom-line comparisons of college outcomes as they do for consumer products such as cars and televisions—to come up with the tools to disseminate the numbers, with or without a government-ratings system.

In effect, those tools will have the same result that the president is seeking: to have money, and then students, flow away from low-performing colleges, just as they would in any rational marketplace.

Think about a new version of the U.S. News & World Report rankings that measures colleges by what they produce at graduation, not the types of students they accept after high school, and that is based on gauges such as graduation rates by family income, debt at graduation, or graduate salaries.

And it won’t be only the usual suspects, like U.S. News, that will produce such rankings in the future. I could imagine new players, such as LinkedIn, getting into the business because it could combine new government statistics with a wealth of information it already holds about its users: where they went to college, the jobs they have held, the skills they possess.

Many colleges won’t like that new ecosystem of consumer information. If the rankings are mostly based on graduate incomes, as many of the new entrants are right now, then institutions will have a legitimate beef.

The income of graduates by college and by major remains an important measure for prospective students to know about, especially if they are going to be forced to take on debt to pay for college. Right now, graduate incomes are relatively easy to measure through state unemployment records, and there is considerable interest in such numbers given the rough economy many newly minted college graduates are facing.

But other graduate outcomes are just as important—such as answering the question “What did this student learn in college?”—and they will eventually follow as we get better at measuring them.

College leaders might want to put a stop to this open-data movement, but given advances in technology and the manipulation of data, there are just too many groups out there that can easily create consumer tools about higher education. Instead, college leaders should take the lead in defining the value of their institutions and then figure out how to measure it before others do it for them.

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