How to Build a Higher Ed Data System Fit for the 21st Century

By Allie Bidwell, Communications Staff

It’s time for better data in postsecondary education.

For students and parents, it’s critical when making decisions about where to attend college. For policymakers, it’s a necessary piece in identifying areas for improvement and accountability –– and how to keep costs down.

During an event on Wednesday, the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP) hosted a series of panel discussions on developing a more comprehensive data infrastructure for the 21st century, and released a series of 11 policy papers outlining ways to improve current systems, and where there’s room to create something that doesn’t yet exist.  

F. King Alexander, president of Louisiana State University, described the “data battlefield” that has persisted for decades, as different parties struggle over what data should be collected and publicly distributed, and who should govern any data systems created.

“Student data is absolutely vital,” Alexander said. “This is not an easy task. You think everybody wants valuable and good data.”

While each paper IHEP released tackles a different issue –– one focuses on assessing and improving state data systems, while another zeroes in on leveraging employment data, for example –– there were common themes that cut across the papers, according to Patrick Perry of the California State University Chancellor’s Office.

In some cases, it might make sense to collect new data elements, such as different employment information like job classifications. In others, it might be necessary to reevaluate data elements already collected and determine if they’re still relevant and useful. Several of the papers also addressed concerns around the need to keep individual students’ data private and secure. And while some papers focused on creating something that does not yet exist, others put an emphasis on what is possible with what we already have –– improving linkages between existing data sets, or improving the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), for example.

“One of the things everyone in this room I think agrees on is the value that data can have to improve student outcomes at the end of the day, regardless of which system or entity is responsible for the governance of that data,” said Jamey Rorison, a senior research analyst for IHEP. “When we think about investments … we’re always looking for ways to better steward those dollars. If we don’t have a really strong understanding about student outcomes, I don’t think we can make the best decisions about where those funds go.”

One issue several panelists focused on was the desire for a student unit record system, which they said would allow institutions, researchers, and policymakers to answer important questions about student outcomes that are in many cases currently unknown.

“If students aren’t counted in our metrics, they aren’t counted in our policies,” said Mamie Voight, director of policy research of IHEP.

One main concern that has been an obstacle to creating such a system has been around student data privacy and security. Ben Miller, senior director for postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress said it’s necessary to be more open to engaging with others about those concerns. Overall, though, the entire conversation about a student-unit record system needs to change, he said.

“The narrative has to become that we can’t afford to not have a student unit record system, not just that it’s something good to have,” Miller said.


Publication Date: 5/19/2016

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