Why the U.S. Needs Better Student Data

September 18, 2015

For years, students and families have been making one of the most important, and expensive, decisions of their lives with very little information to go on. They have been deciding where to go to college without the help of data that are reliable, comparable, or that answer critical questions that students and families have about postcollege outcomes.

Sure, they’ve been able to look at U.S. News & World Report’s Best Colleges Rankings. But those rankings, as has been repeatedly pointed out, are fundamentally flawed — not just because they largely use inputs that reward and replicate exclusivity and wealth, but because they don’t answer vital questions that students have. The editor of U.S. News, Brian Kelly, said as much in 2013: "We know the rankings aren’t perfect, mostly because some of the data we’d like to get isn’t available. What have students learned when they graduate? Did they get jobs? How much do they earn? These are factors most consumers would like to know. But for the most part, they aren’t measured by schools in any comparable way."

Earlier this month, the Obama administration took a huge step in changing that when it rolled out troves of previously unavailable data on college outcomes, some of which are included in the new College Scorecard. Of course, we still don’t know what (or whether) students have learned while in college, because there are no good, comparable data to answer that question. But now we can finally start to answer other critical questions about how well individual colleges are serving students who receive federal financial aid.

With these data, we can explore basic questions for particular colleges like: Do college graduates earn more than high-school graduates? Are students with Pell Grants graduating? Are students from community colleges transferring to and graduating from four-year colleges? Are graduates earning enough to pay down their debts? Previously, the public couldn’t even begin to start to dig into these questions and get reliable answers.

This lack of information was not accidental. For years, a few powerful higher-education associations have fought to prevent such information from being made public. And they have largely succeeded. In 2008, private-college lobbyists successfully pressured Congress to pass a law barring the U.S. Department of Education from creating a student unit-record system, which would allow the federal government to compile and use existing student data to help answer critical questions.

Since then, however, policy makers on both sides of the aisle have realized how crazy it is that students, families, and taxpayers are making huge investments in higher education without knowing much about how well colleges are serving students. While the overall financial returns for a college education are undisputed, there is huge variation across institutions, programs, and student populations. In some cases, institutions are leaving students worse off than before they enrolled, with lots of debt but no degree. In others, students are borrowing tens of thousands of dollars to pay for college, only to find themselves making little more than minimum wage for years on end. We can and must do better, but we can’t unless we know where the problems exist.

The new College Scorecard allows us to start to see how individual institutions are doing by their students. The data aren’t perfect and will in the coming days, weeks, and months be questioned, tested, and improved. Some of the limitations are a result of the department’s decisions on what to include, like reporting the combined earnings of those who graduated and those who didn’t. That, presumably, can be changed if institutions make the case to the department to disaggregate them.

Some of the limitations, like spotty data on whether Pell students graduate, are due to poor-quality data submitted by institutions that weren’t previously required to report such information. This, too, will presumably change as institutions have an incentive to make sure what they report is accurate.

Some of the limitations, like the lack of program-level data, will change as that information comes in over time. But other limitations can’t be dealt with until Congress repeals its own shortsighted law that bans the aggregation and collection of better data.

The most critical missing element is on outcomes for the 43 percent of college students who do not receive federal financial aid. This number is even higher for students in certain states and at certain types of institutions. Consider the two million students who enrolled in California’s 100-plus community colleges in 2013-14. These students were lucky enough to live in a state that has committed to keeping down the direct costs of education, through low tuition and fees and extensive fee waivers.

Consequently, many of California’s low-income community-college students don’t use federal aid to pay for college. Only 22 percent of those who started in 2013 received a Pell Grant, and 3 percent took out a federal loan. Since many Pell Grant recipients also borrow federal loans, this means that at best, three out of four students in the nation’s largest community-college system are not represented in the new data. That’s millions of students.

Students have a right to know how others like themselves fare at particular institutions, whether they receive federal aid or pay out of pocket. Colleges deserve to have their public data reflect the outcomes for all students at their institutions. This is probably why we have seen all of the large associations representing public colleges and universities embrace better data and call for a repeal of the 2008 law.

And state and federal policy makers should know how the student outcomes compare between those who do and do not receive federal aid. Even students who don’t receive such aid in the form of subsidized loans and Pell Grants receive huge benefits from the federal government, through individual tax credits they may claim, the dollars their colleges save through their tax-exempt status, or through the billions of federal dollars pumped yearly into colleges and universities.

Given the federal interest in higher-education outcomes, it is no surprise that U.S. Rep. John Kline, chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce weighed in on the new scorecard, with a statement called "Grading the Administration’s College Scorecard: Incomplete." I couldn’t agree more, as better data are needed to answer some critical questions

The department, however, has now done everything it can do — and much more than many of us expected. Bipartisan legislation to repeal the 2008 law has been introduced numerous times but has yet to pass. It’s now Congress’s turn to help provide much-needed clarity on college outcomes to the millions of students and families who are spending and borrowing thousands of dollars for the promise of a good education and a better life.

Amy Laitinen is director for higher education at the New America Foundation.