WASHINGTON — In order to demonstrate what they are doing for students, colleges and universities must be willing to let data tell their story and stop perpetuating the faulty notion that charging a hefty tuition necessarily means students are getting a better education.
That was the argument that LSU President F. King Alexander made Wednesday at a gathering meant to get institutions of higher education to embrace a more comprehensive system of data that shows how they are performing on indicators that range from completion to employment.
“Data is important. Data exposes those that are ripping off the public. Data helps the institutions that are trying to show value, keep costs down, keep efficiencies up, and that’s the fight we’re in for the next 50 years of higher education,” Alexander said.
Alexander made his remarks at a forum titled “Envisioning the National Postsecondary Data Infrastructure in the 21st Century.” The event was convened by the Institute for Higher Education Policy, or IHEP, and was financed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
While an overarching theme was to get institutions of higher education to embrace a data “ecosystem” that would provide more transparency about how students are transitioning from college and into the workforce—something already being done on a limited basis in various states—several speakers said more consideration must be given to the concerns being raised by those who believe in limited government about how a broader data system could compromise student privacy.
“I think that (privacy) needs to be treated more seriously and more seriously engaged with,” said Ben Miller, senior director for postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress.
“We need to say, ‘We hear you,’ and try to respond to privacy concerns,” Miller said.
Miller is author of “Building a Student-Level Data System,” one of about a dozen policy papers released at Wednesday’s forum.
Other papers touched on topics that ranged from using employment data to measure labor market outcomes for graduates, to ways to incentivize states to join a “state data exchange” that would enable policymakers to gain a better sense of what kind of employment outcomes institutions and even specific programs at colleges and universities should be able to demonstrate.
Much of the discussion focused on the extent to which greater transparency on an institution’s performance could be obtained through existing data systems.
Doug Shapiro, executive research director at the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center—a nonprofit that tracks student outcomes for secondary and postsecondary schools that subscribe to the service—said the appeal to colleges and universities has to be how data can help them get better at what they do.
He said the National Student Clearinghouse could help to form a broader data education system because it is already entrusted by institutions of higher education to do work in the data collection realm.
“It can be done today without new systems or regulations,” Shapiro said.
“If you can get institutions to benchmark success and compare it in a meaningful context with peer institutions and put it in context with national and state level demographics and the economy and different things that affect student success, in addition to what’s happening on campus, that helps an institution to contextualize their practices, improve their programs and do a better job,” Shapiro said. He added that it would also help colleges and universities to better tell their story, whereas existing measures, such as those that fail to capture what happens with students who transfer, may fall short.
Randy Swing, former executive director of the Association for Institutional Research, stressed the need to count all students who graduate, including those who take longer than the six years that the federal government uses to calculate graduation rates. Doing so, he said, would capture a greater number of Latino graduates who may not show up on six-year graduation rates not because they dropped out of school but because they took off from school to work and support their families.
He also urged attendees to rethink the kind of data they collect and whether it’s necessary.
“We are incredibly prone to continue to do something because we’ve done it for a long time,” Swing said. “The fear of breaking from a history of collecting something, even though it’s no longer relevant, is something we’ve just got to be willing to walk away from and kind of move on.”