Policy Experts Discuss Data Needs for Students Looking to Make Sense of Postsecondary Finances

By Hugh T. Ferguson, NASFAA Senior Staff Reporter

Data doesn't lie, but like many facets of the financial aid process, it can be complicated by the ways in which it is aggregated, reported, and presented to students.

A group of policy experts convened on Wednesday to share their thoughts on the ways in which institutions and federal leaders could provide students with better access to postsecondary data.

The conversation, hosted by the Center for Data Innovation, touched on a litany of data parameters that would help students have better access to information on their prospective program's outcomes, and better ensure that they have a clearer picture of how their loan debt could impact their professional lives.

While the pandemic has frozen a large swath of outstanding federal student debt, offering current borrowers a financial reprieve through a continued pause on interest and repayments, the ongoing moratorium has done little to address future debt being incurred by students. The pause has also put accountability metrics on hold, leaving many prospective borrowers in the dark as to the outcomes of a given program. 

According to Charles Ansell, vice president for research, policy, and advocacy at Complete College America, at this moment in time the most thoroughly detailed data provided to prospective students is the Department of Education's (ED) College Scorecard, which while a valuable asset does have some shortcomings

Jennifer Engle, director of data for the U.S. program at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, explained that one of the biggest gaps with higher education data in general is the lack of disaggregated data. For instance, student loan debt data is not broken down by race or ethnicity, which does not allow students to have access to information that best relates to their experiences.

"Existing datasets cover some of the students, some of the time," Engle said. "What happens is those gaps in information become gaps for students as they are seeking to navigate from high school into postsecondary, or for adults who might be looking to upskill with college." 

Rachel Rotunda, NASFAA's director of government relations, also highlighted limitations that currently available data has for students.

"We don't have data on all students — much of what's in the scorecard comes from graduates who receive federal financial aid," Rotunda said. "Not all students submit a FAFSA, and that includes many students who are from low- and moderate-income families."

Many students who might be eligible for aid do not complete the form due to burdens in the process, which contributes to the incomplete picture currently available to policymakers and students alike. 

Rotunda went on to highlight the ways in which institutions can help reduce confusion, such as by improving financial aid offers and working to make their information clearer to prospective students. 

"It gets into what are your costs going to be, what is an accurate estimate of those costs, what types of aid are you eligible for, and how do you fill the gap between grants and scholarships?" Rotunda said. "That ultimately contributes to what your year-by-year, as well as cumulative loan balance and overall debt balance is going to be."

In trying to make sense of currently available data, another shortcoming centers around program completion times. 

According to Engle this information is not disaggregated, meaning that the time to program completion operates under a wide period, which in many instances includes a four- to six-year window. However, every additional semester within that time frame adds to the cumulative net price, meaning students do not have the most accurate projection of their program costs. 

Rotunda also underscored that institutions strive for students to succeed and help them earn a degree as quickly as possible, and that more robust institutional data can be helpful to ensure that programs are meeting the needs of students. 

One additional burden of varying data sets is that there can be instances of information overload for students who do not know how to make sense of the information. Rotunda said that disclosures related to student loans need strong consumer testing to ensure that information is properly conveyed to students and clearly counseled.  

The panel also said that it is also important that these data sets be made available to a wide swath of students who may not have a familiarity with the college-going process.

Engle explained that as a first-generation college student and a Pell Grant recipient, a lot of postsecondary information was not easy to decipher.

"I honestly didn't understand the difference between different types of public institutions, I didn't really understand the difference between public and private institutions," Engle said. "When you are a first-generation student you do not have the language to even know what questions to ask. … There are a lot of students that are out there trying to make these decisions on their own, and those are the students that I am worried about." 


Publication Date: 1/26/2023

Darren C | 1/26/2023 11:41:33 AM

Also remember the "debt crisis" was created by a system that the Government forcibly put into place, then advertised and sold to all kinds of students. They waited until the debt grew to well over a Trillion dollars before pushing the crisis narrative to the front page.. There were no concrete regulations on the cost of education in this country, just unprecedented access to tax payer funds to indebt students. I always say to stop looking at the "Crisis" now, instead look at how and why it began, and things will seem a lot more clear. Hold accountable those who created the system the crisis was built upon.

Access to all of this data is honestly just going to confuse student borrowers and put the FA process in even more of a fog. These policy makers are being dishonest or seem totally out of touch. "The panel also said that it is also important that these data sets be made available to a wide swath of students who may not have a familiarity with the college-going process." Why would these data sets help anyone that is already unfamiliar with the process?

Lastly why would I or anyone else care what someone at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation thinks about educational debt in this country? They have no business being involved IMO. Lets get our Government, Dept. of ED and policy makers to clean up this mess and be held accountable.

Gregory G | 1/26/2023 9:9:52 AM

I don't buy the argument that there's a student debt crisis.

Ben R | 1/26/2023 8:45:13 AM

I don't buy the argument that the student debt crisis is a graduation crisis. Over half of all borrowing is going to graduate students and graduate students are relying the most heavily on subsidized IDR plans. They are not defaulting, but they aren't paying down their loans either, and owe many times more than the typical non-completer.

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