Higher Ed Experts Urge Congress to Improve Data Requirements in HEA Reauthorization
Lawmakers and expert witnesses at a House committee hearing Thursday acknowledged the need to reduce burdensome data collection requirements in higher education, but stressed the importance of improving current systems to collect data more relevant to today’s diverse student population.
"We have so much data, and yet we know so little," House Education and Workforce Committee Chairwoman Virginia Foxx said. "Without a doubt, the  reauthorization of the Higher Education Act started a process of enhancing higher education transparency. But as tuition continues to rise at an astonishing pace, it is clear more work must be done to help students and families make informed choices about their higher education options without overburdening institutions with counterproductive red tape."
American Institutes for Research Vice President Dr. Mark Schneider said Congress should use reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA) to reduce burdensome regulations and improve the focus and scope of higher education data collection, including the Department of Education’s (ED) primary higher education data collection system, Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS).
"IPEDS would be a pretty good data system for the 1950s, but IPEDS is flawed – perhaps fatally so – given our current system of higher education," Schneider said. "We need to ask the question, what’s the compelling national interest in collecting [some of] the data?"
According to Schneider, IPEDS fails to efficiently measure institutional and student performance because by collecting data exclusively on first-time, full-time students, it fails to represent the nation’s growing population of non-traditional students.
José L. Cruz, Vice President for Higher Education Policy and Practice at Education Trust, noted IPEDS failed to collect quality information on graduation rates, including those rates for Pell Grant recipients.
"Currently, IPEDS collects graduation rates overall and by race, ethnicity, and gender, but it does not collect that data by income," Cruz said. "Thus, low-income students trying to decide which institution offers them the best chance of earning a degree or credential have no way of assessing how well an institution does for students like them. Reporting these data should be relatively easy as institutions already know their students’ financial-aid status."
Schneider also noted that ED’s determination of return on investment (ROI) makes far too many assumptions about values that cannot or are not quantified.
"The problem is that most of the data we have now are not precise enough to let us pick firm cut-off points fairly," he said. "However, if we view these data as informing consumer choice and seek to create reliable tools to allow students, their families, and their government representatives to view these data within a comparative framework, we can increase accountability by empowering consumer choice."
Schneider cited the Department’s Gainful Employment regulations as an example, arguing that desire to regulate the for-profit industry guided the measure, rather than consumer disclosure.
"It is difficult to justify disqualifying a school with a repayment rate below 35% from participation in Title IV programs but not a program with a 35.1% repayment rate," he said in his testimony, referring the Gainful Employment metric that was struck down in court on the basis that the 35 percent seemed arbitrarily selected as ED had no data to support why 35 percent should mark the threshold.
Schneider said federal data collection on higher education should acknowledge different types of students as well as determine how different majors and programs affect student success in the labor market. He noted that many states have such data on hand, but very little is publicly available.
"About half the nation’s states can now link student-level data that document each collegian’s experiences (including major field of study) to unemployment insurance records that can track post-graduation earnings," Schneider said.
The problem he noted is getting states to make those data publicly available.
The National Student Loan Data System (NSLDS) also drew some criticism.
"NSLDS currently compiles data on federal student loans, but not on private student loans," Cruz said. "Additionally, NSLDS does not include a flag to indicate whether a particular student has completed her program of study."
In an effort to remind lawmakers of the extent to which the current data collection system burdens higher education institutions, Tracy Fitzsimmons, President of Shenandoah University, stacked more than one foot of documents beside her to display the amount of disclosure requirements her university must report. She noted that when thinking of this issue, the government should place at least some faith in the market and peer-review accreditation to weed out the weaker institutions.
"My point here is not to disagree with the view that there are some important data points we might place in front of perspective students for an informed college selection," Fitzsimmons said in her testimony. "Rather, my point is that the selection process includes some very important factors that cannot be measured. And just as importantly, if we don’t keep it simple, we have accomplished nothing but more costs for colleges and more confusion for the student."