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By the Numbers

August 8, 2012

The top two higher education data mavens at the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics have moved on, and their departures come amid a looming reorganization that will probably nix a stand-alone higher education division. The changes have made some observers nervous, given the increasing appetite for solid data in higher education policy making.

“We just lost a couple good people, and that’s always hard,” said Jack Buckley, the center’s commissioner. While the leadership turnover was unrelated to the reorganization, Buckley said the “timing wasn’t great.”

However, Buckley is confident the center will continue to improve its many surveys and research tools.

“There will not be any interruption in the data that we collect,” Buckley said.

Thomas Weko had led the center’s postsecondary studies division, but recently left his position as associate commissioner to accept a promotion to the department’s budget and policy office. Weko’s deputy, Elise Miller, who played a key role in overseeing the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), left in May to become the senior program officer for postsecondary data at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The proposed reorganization is pending, Buckley said. He declined to comment on the plan while the department’s brass is still considering it.

However, several sources said the general gist was for the four current divisions -- higher education, K-12, early childhood and assessment -- to be shuffled into new groupings based on data collection methods. For example, one might handle “sample surveys,” while another would manage “administrative data collections.”

The goal of the proposed shift is to ensure better connections between the center’s various longitudinal studies, said Mark Schneider, vice president at the American Institutes for Research and the center’s former commissioner. That could make for better tracking of student cohorts throughout the education pipeline, he said, and firmer links between higher education data sets -- including IPEDS and the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study.

While Buckley said he had to be circumspect about the possible changes, he promised that the center would move toward a “more logical” arrangement and that “ideally we’ll put out even more data.”

However, the likely demise of a one-stop shop for higher education data is a concern, at least from an optics standpoint, sources said. And the future division’s leaders will not have titles that make them obvious go-to “czars” on college-specific data. Weko and Miller filled those roles, and were in regular contact with higher education associations.

Jessica Shedd took over for Miller, and is the program’s acting director. Shedd, a researcher who has plenty of experience with higher education data, both at the center and in her former job at the National Association of College and University Business Officers, has met with experts at the associations and other researchers, Buckley said.

Even if the center is improved under the proposed new system, some observers worry that its structure might send a signal that data specific to higher education are being de-emphasized for a broader, K-20 focus. That would frustrate many, given that policy makers and foundations are pushing on several issues that lean heavily on data, including graduation and retention rates, student debt and information about part-time students.

For example, a federal panel recently called for several changes to IPEDS, most of which are aimed at getting a deeper and more accurate view of transfer and completion rates. And the Gates Foundation is big on improved data collection.

IPEDS is the data set people love to hate. “It’s old and creaky,” said Schneider, and “built for a time that no longer exists.” But Weko and Miller were generally well-respected in the academy. And observers said they did a commendable job managing survey tools.

Schneider said it was understandable that some people were worried about the center’s focus. But he said higher education data should fare well under the proposed new structure. A larger concern, according to Schneider, is what might happen to IPEDS during reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, which could begin as early as next year.

Policy debates around reauthorization could add new planks to the dataset, making it even more cumbersome, Schneider said. At some point, he said, IPEDS might collapse because it’s being asked to do too much.

 

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