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The Delta Project Moves On

November 29, 2011

WASHINGTON -- A national organization that has done more than any other to make higher education finances clearer and more accessible to legislators, higher education policy makers -- and, yes, journalists -- is reaching a state of "planned obsolescence," to be replaced by splitting its two missions between the U.S. Education Department's statistics branch and a nonprofit research group.

The Delta Project on Postsecondary Costs, Productivity and Accountability will cease to be in early 2012, the independent group's founder and executive director, Jane Wellman, announced Monday. Wellman, who in several decades of work at the state, association and think-tank levels developed a reputation as the foremost analyst of higher education finances, founded the Delta Project in 2007 (with support from the Lumina Foundation for Education) to try to "improve college affordability by controlling costs and improving productivity" -- but "without sacrificing access or educational quality." Since last year, Wellman has been doing double-duty not only at Delta but as executive director of the National Association of System Heads, a job on which she will now focus.

Many groups that have been formed in this era of increased accountability in higher education have words like "affordability" and "productivity" in their names, but Wellman's has been unusual -- if not unique -- in zeroing in on, and helping the public (and college leaders themselves) understand, how colleges spend their money.

And while she has pulled no punches in drawing attention to campus practices that seem wasteful or pointing out ways in which they are inefficient, she -- unlike some other analysts -- has also been willing to defend higher education from attacks when the financial data Delta publishes put the lie to critics' assertions.

What Delta and Wellman have done, primarily, is to take a set of not-very-understandable financial data collected from colleges by the Education Department's Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System; put them into a database that cleans, "harmonizes" and organizes them to make them more easily comparable across institution types and years; and use the data to make much clearer how (and on what) colleges spend their money. The center has published annual reports on trends in college spending and a series of occasional issue briefs and white papers.

But Wellman has also spent countless hours explaining the project's data and findings to legislators, trustees, and reporters in ways that have helped shape the current policy environment. Several states have built the project's analysis into their accountability systems, and far more higher education researchers are now studying college costs because they now have an accessible and understandable avenue to the data.

"There is just nobody who knows the issues of college costs the way Jane Wellman does, and she has helped make sure we understand it better," said Robert H. Atwell, the chairman of the project's board and a former president of the American Council on Education.

Perhaps nothing shows how much Delta and Wellman have changed the landscape as much as one key portion of the plan for the project's next phase. The database portion of Delta's mission -- the collection and editing of campus data -- will be folded into the annual IPEDS data collection done by the National Center for Education Statistics, which will also work with scholars and others who want access to the data. Wellman said she believed that producing clear and accessible financial data about higher education should be the federal government's role, and that officials at NCES agree.

The federal agency will not be responsible for the analytical work in which Delta specializes; such an arrangement would almost certainly have raised concerns that such analysis might become politicized in the hands of a federal agency.

Instead, that set of duties will fall to the American Institutes for Research, a nonprofit organization that does social science and behavioral research. Its managing director, Rita Kirshstein, has worked with Delta for several years, Wellman said, and Kirshstein and her team "have the expertise to not only maintain, but also to enhance," Delta's work in producing the "Trends in Spending" reports, documenting patterns in revenues and spending across public and nonprofit higher education, and maintaining Delta's websites with national and institutional-level data.

Atwell acknowledged that Wellman will be a tough act to follow. "Would I rather that she had stayed? Yes, but she needed to get on with her life, and I understand that," he said. "Whether AIR has people who can really do what Jane and her colleagues have done remains to be seen. But this is important work, and I'm hopeful."

 

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