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Federal System Adds Transfer, Part-time Student Data to Mix

A longstanding effort to include more information about outcomes for transfer and part-time students materialized Thursday with the release of more detailed data through the federal Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, commonly known as IPEDS.

Whereas previously IPEDS only calculated outcomes for “first-time, full-time students,” the previously omitted data is now reflected in a new “First Look” report that examines graduation rates, outcome measures, financial aid and admissions data for various academic years. Outcomes for students who enter college part-time or who have attended college elsewhere are now included.

Peter McPhersonPeter McPherson

The report — released through the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, or NCES— can be accessed here.

As student demographics and college-going patterns continue to shift, advocates hailed the move to provide more detailed data and say it gives a fuller picture of what’s happening for students in terms of their completion rates.

“We were just missing large numbers of students because of the focus on ‘first-time, full-time,’” said Dr. Mark S. Schneider, vice president and institute fellow at the American Institutes for Research. He noted that the call for information on transfer and part-time students had been enshrined into law through the 2008 reauthorization of the Higher Education Act but took all these years to implement.

“It was becoming an embarrassment because [IPEDS] was measuring fewer and fewer components of who American higher education institutions are educating,” said Schneider, who served as commissioner of NCES during the second term of President George W. Bush.

However, Schneider agreed that the extent to which the new data is valuable and accessible to students and families as they select colleges remains to be seen.

Some thought the College Scorecard would influence where students would decide to attend college but for the most part it did not. Mostly “well-resourced high schools and students” put the College Scorecard to use and only to a limited extent, research shows.

“We have not cracked the code yet about taking this kind of information and meeting students where they are,” Schneider said, although he added that the information doesn’t have to reach all students, just enough to spark a difference in enrollment decisions.

Others say the more detailed information on outcomes for part-time and transfer students could benefit students indirectly if it ultimately leads to better policy, better targeting of resources and more attention toward troubled programs, or if it’s utilized by college advising practitioners.

“It can help [college advisors] guide them toward institutions where the odds of success are higher,” said Colleen Campbell, associate director of postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning research and policy group based in Washington, D.C.

Campbell noted that the new completion rates for part-time and transfer students are not analogous to the graduation rates for 4, 5 and 6 years at four-year institutions and 2, 3 and 4 years at two-year institutions.

Rather, the new data help show where students ended up eight years after enrollment at a given institution. That’s important for community colleges, Campbell said, because the new data show that many students who were deemed as dropouts are actually showing up as enrolled in other institutions.

For instance, out of 395,800 part-time students who began at a two-year public institution in 2008, 125,568 — or 31.7 percent — were enrolled at another institution eight years later. Similarly, of 198,954 full-time transfer students at two-year public institutions, 67,402 — or 33.9 percent — were enrolled at a different institution eight years later.

“So with traditional graduation rates, those students are not counted whatever,” Campbell said. “They frequently appear as dropouts.”

Campbell said despite the new information about transfer and part-time students, there is still a need for more granular data about such students — such as their income status and race and ethnicity — in order for the data to be more useful.

Several higher education associations expressed similar thoughts Thursday as they praised the move by the U.S. Department of Education to include outcomes data for transfer and part-time students but said there is still a need for student-level data to provide a more detailed picture. Student-level data is currently banned by federal law.

“By finally allowing institutions to report some of the progress and success of part-time and incoming transfer students, the Department is helping to paint a clearer picture,” said Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU).

“However, significant problems remain,” McPherson said. “While the new IPEDS system counts all students on their way into college, how transfer students do at their next institution remains a mystery due to a congressional ban on a student-level data network.

“With more than half of bachelor’s degree recipients transferring before earning their diploma, this is a significant data gap that needs to be filled.”

McPherson seized the opportunity to call on Congress to pass the bipartisan College Transparency Act, or CTA, which he said would lift the ban on a student level data network and “allow a much more complete and accurate look at student progress across all institutions.”

“The CTA would also enable the reporting of how well students from individual institutions do in the job market, including earnings levels by academic program,” McPherson said. “This is some of the most critical information students and families want when making important decisions about where to apply and attend.”

Dr. Felice J. Levine, executive director of the American Educational Research Association, gave the IPEDS expansion “three cheers” and called it a “significant step forward in better understanding student and institutional outcomes.” At the same time, Levine also said “large gaps in what we know about student and college outcomes still exist—and will continue to exist—until Congress lifts restrictions that prevent national collection of student-level data in a rigorously privacy-protected system.”

“It is only through such a system that students and families, policymakers, and the general public will have access to high-quality information about postsecondary outcomes,” Levine said. “This information is needed to help inform many important decisions, from life-changing individual choices to public policies that affect a $500 billion sector of the economy.”

Jamaal Abdul-Alim can be reached at [email protected] or you can follow him on Twitter @dcwriter360.

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