The Absurd Way We Report Higher Education Data

Perspectives - Masthead  

Student Aid Perspectives is an occasional, longer-format series designed to offer thought-provoking articles on current student aid topics written by expert authors. The opinions offered and statements made do not imply endorsement by NASFAA or the authors' employers and do not guarantee the accuracy of information presented.

Tamara HilerBy Tamara Hiler

Every morning before I head to work, I pull out my phone and ask Siri what the weather will be for that day. This allows me to make an informed decision on a variety of factors—should I grab an umbrella? Is it cold enough to wear pantyhose? Should I trek a few extra blocks to catch the bus or is it best to just hop on the Metro? I also look at the full week’s weather forecast to plan my social life accordingly, including whether I should stay in on a snowy Friday night or schedule an outdoor dinner with some friends on a temperate evening. 

But imagine if I went to pull up the weather map—and instead of seeing a complete forecast for the week ahead—I could only access information for five out of the seven days, or could only see average temperatures based on that time of year. I think most people would agree that having a partial readout of the forecast would be absurd, especially if we knew that meteorologists had the tools to produce more robust and accurate data for the public. 

Weather Chart

While this weather metaphor may seem preposterous, a similar phenomenon is currently playing out when it comes to the way the federal government reports higher education data. Due to statutory limitations, students and families are only privy to incomplete and sometimes inaccurate information on a college’s performance, including how many students graduate or their post-enrollment earnings. Forgetting to bring an umbrella to work on a rainy day is an inconvenient nuisance, but systematically asking students to make one of the biggest financial investments of their lives without complete data is an absurd practice that can dramatically alter the trajectory of millions of students’ lives each year.

So how did we get here?

The limitations in higher education data stem from two pieces of legislation: the Student Right to Know and Campus Security Act of 1990, which limited federal graduation rates to count only first-time, full-time students, and a 2008 amendment to the Higher Education and Opportunity Act, which put in place a ban on the collection of student-level data. Because of these two statutory changes, our current data collection system now has gaping holes—especially as an increasing number of part-time, transfer, and returning students access higher education each year.

For example, only 47 percent of college-goers today meet the first-time, full-time criteria, meaning that the federal graduation rate as written into law does not accurately portray how well a college is able to help all of its students earn degrees.[i] And even though the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data Systems (IPEDS) Outcome Measures survey now asks colleges to report completion data for part-time and transfer students, we still have no idea whether students who transfer out of an institution go on to ultimately graduate or if they end up dropping out. In addition, we still can’t disaggregate these graduation rates by race and ethnicity, covering up what could be large equity gaps for the growing share of nontraditional students at individual campuses. This leaves students, policymakers, and researchers unable to answer basic questions like “how many part-time and transfer students of color complete?”

But completion data is not the only metric where federal data collection falls short. Federal law only permits the Department of Education to report workforce-related data for federally-aided students. However, only 71 percent of students receive federal aid, which means post-enrollment earnings data omits nearly one-third of the college-going population. And earnings and repayment data are only offered at the institution-level, leaving students in the dark about which program is most likely to set them up for success in the workforce. Knowing an institution’s overall repayment rate does little good if there is wide variation within an institution for how well their biology majors go on to pay back their loans versus their students who major in business. 

This lack of nuance can also have major implications when it comes to helping students make informed decisions about where to invest their hard-earned time and money. This is particularly true for making sure students don’t face the worst case scenario—taking out student loans to attend a school and then not graduating—leaving them degreeless and, in debt, and at-risk for default. And as new conversations about implementing stronger accountability measures in higher education heat up (such as the concept of “risk-sharing”), putting in place the structures to have clear and precise outcomes data will be more important than ever.

Luckily, it doesn’t have to be this way.

There’s a clear step the federal government can take to mitigate the incomplete data reported in higher education today. Over the last year, there has been a groundswell of support from policymakers, business leaders, college presidents, and other higher education stakeholders calling for Congress to overturn its ban on student-level data. A bipartisan and bicameral bill called the College Transparency Act (CTA) introduced by Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Orrin Hatch (R-UT), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), and Bill Cassidy (R-LA) and Reps. Jared Polis (D-CO) and Paul Mitchell (R-MI) would create a “student-level data network” that would give consumers more timely and accurate data on completion and post-college outcomes. The bill would also streamline some of the burdensome and duplicative reporting requirements facing institutions today so that more time can be spent on better targeting institutional resources toward programs and students that need support the most.

And while some states already have their own longitudinal data systems, creating a federal standard would allow these datasets to better talk to one another so that states can measure student mobility and help identify national skills gaps.  

As financial aid administrators on the front lines, you understand more than anyone does the importance of having the most up-to-date, clear, and accurate information possible to assist students in navigating the complex world of student financial aid. Students take out loans to attend college with the implicit understanding that they’ll receive a good return on that investment years down the line. And while the economic benefits of earning a college degree prove that most will, wide variation in institutional- and program-level quality can play a large role in making that financial investment a less risky one.

It is for that simple reason that we must do a better job at giving students and their families more detailed and factual outcomes data from the start. Because if we wouldn’t accept obscured information in other parts of our lives—like the weather forecast—then we shouldn’t accept it when it comes to helping students and families make one of the biggest investments of their lives.

Higher Ed Data

[i] Source: Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System. Author’s calculations using first-time, full-time degree/certificate-seeking undergraduate enrollment for Fall 2016 (current year GRS cohort) and total entering students at the undergraduate level Fall 2016.


Tamara Hiler is a senior policy advisor and higher education campaign manager at Third Way. To learn more, go to


Publication Date: 3/5/2018

Jeff A | 3/5/2018 9:45:13 AM

I agree. In the interim, reporting aggregated workforce data by program for those that receive Title IV aid is a needed step that can be done at the regulatory level, and a pretty good proxy, especially for those that have federal student loan debt. Institutional level data is nowhere near as useful unless it is provided at the program level as well. Data also needs to be provided for those that graduated, and also normed by socio-economic diversity.

You must be logged in to comment on this page.

Comments Disclaimer: NASFAA welcomes and encourages readers to comment and engage in respectful conversation about the content posted here. We value thoughtful, polite, and concise comments that reflect a variety of views. Comments are not moderated by NASFAA but are reviewed periodically by staff. Users should not expect real-time responses from NASFAA. To learn more, please view NASFAA’s complete Comments Policy.

Related Content

Annual Business Meeting & Policy Update: Spring 2024: Annual Business Meeting & Policy Update: Spring 2024


Book Review: "From Equity Talk to Equity Walk: Expanding Practitioner Knowledge for Racial Justice in Higher Education"


View Desktop Version