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We need a new student data system -- but the right kind of one (essay)

A Qualified Yes on Unit Records

March 20, 2014

The New America Foundation’s recent report on the Student Unit Record System (SURS) is fascinating reading.  It is hard to argue with the writers’ contention that our current systems of data collection are broken, do not serve the public or policy makers very well, and are no better at protecting student privacy than their proposed SURS might be. 

It also lifts the veil on One Dupont Circle and Washington behind-the-scenes lobbying and politics that is delicious and also troubling, if not exactly "House of Cards" dramatic. Indeed, it is good wonkish history and analysis and sets the stage for a better informed debate about any national unit record system.

As president of a nonprofit private institution and paid-up member of NAICU, the industry sector and its representative organization in D.C. that respectively stand as SURS roadblocks in the report’s telling, I find myself both in support of a student unit record system and worried about the things it wants to record. Privacy, the principle argument mounted against such a system, is not my worry, and I tend to agree with the report’s arguments that it is the canard that masks the real reason for opposition: institutional fear of accountability. 

Our industry is a troubled one, after all, that loses too many students (Would we accept a 50 percent success rate among surgeons and bridge builders?) and often saddles them with too much debt, and whose outputs are increasingly questioned by employers.

The lack of a student record system hinders our ability to understand our industry, as New America’s Clare McCann and Amy Laitinen point out, and understanding the higher education landscape remains ever more challenging for consumers. A well-designed SURS would certainly help with the former and might eventually help with the latter problem, though college choices have so much irrationality built into them that consumer education is only one part of the issue.  But what does “well-designed” mean here? This is where I, like everyone, gets worried.

For me, three design principles must be in place for an effective SURS:

Hold us accountable for what we can control. This is a cornerstone principle of accountability and data collection. As an institution, we should be held accountable for what students learn, their readiness for their chosen careers, and giving them all the tools they need to go out there and begin their job search. Fair enough. But don’t hold me accountable for what I can’t control:

  • The labor market. I can’t create jobs where they don’t exist, and the struggles of undeniably well-prepared students to find good-paying, meaningful jobs say more about the economy, the ways in which technology is replacing human labor, and the choices that corporations make than my institutional effectiveness.  If the government wants to hold us accountable on earnings post-graduation, can we hold it accountable for making sure that good-paying jobs are out there?
  • Graduate motivation and grit. My institution can do everything in its power to encourage students to start their job search early, to do internships and network, and to be polished and ready for that first interview.  But if a student chooses to take that first year to travel, to be a ski bum, or simply stay in their home area when jobs in their discipline might be in Los Angeles or Washington or Omaha, there is little I can do.  Yet those have a lot of impact on the measure of earnings just after graduation.
  • Irrational passion. We should arm prospective students with good information about their majors: job prospects, average salaries, geographic demand, how recent graduates have fared.  However, if a student is convinced that being a poet or an art historian is his or her calling, to recall President Obama’s recent comment, how accountable is my individual institution if that student graduates and then struggles to find work? 

We wrestle with these questions internally.  We talk about capping majors that seem to have diminished demand, putting in place differential tuition rates, and more.  How should we think about our debt to earnings ratio? None of this is an argument against a unit record system, but a plea that it measure things that are more fully in our institutional control.   For example, does it make more sense to measure earnings three or five years out, which at least gets us past the transitional period into the labor market and allows for some evening out of the flux that often attends those first years after graduation? 

Contextualize the findings. As has been pointed out many times, a 98 percent graduation rate at a place like Harvard is less a testimony to its institutional quality than evidence of its remarkably talented incoming classes of students.  Not only would a 40 percent graduation rate at some institutions be a smashing success, but Harvard would almost certainly fail those very same students. As McCann and Laitinen point out, so much of what we measure and report on is not about students, so let’s make sure that an eventual SURS provides consumer information that makes sense for the individual consumer and institutional sector. 

If the consumer dimension of a student unit record system is to help people make wise choices, it can’t treat all institutions the same and it should be consumer-focused.  For example, can it be “smart” enough to solicit the kind of consumer information that then allows us to answer not only the question the authors pose, “What kinds of students are graduating from specific institutions?” but “What kinds of students like you are graduating from what set of similar institutions and how does my institution perform in that context?”

This idea extends to other items we might and should measure. For example, is a $30,000 salary for an elementary school teacher in a given region below, at, or above the average for a newly minted teacher three years after graduation?  How then are my teachers doing compared to graduates in my sector? Merely reporting the number without context is not very useful. It’s all about context.

What we measure will matter. This is obvious and it speaks to both the power of measuring and raises the specter of inadvertent consequences.  A cardiologist friend commented to me that his unit’s performance is measured in various ways and the simplest way for him to improve its mortality metric is to take fewer very sick heart patients. He of course worries that such a decision contradicts its mission and why he practices medicine. It continues to bother me that proposed student records systems don’t measure learning, the thing that matters most to my institution.  More precisely, that they don’t measure how much we have moved the dial for any given student, how impactful we have been. 

Internally, we have honed our predictive analytics based on student profile data and can measure impact pretty precisely.  Similarly, if we used student profile data as part of the SURS consumer function, we might be able to address more effectively both my first and second design principles. 

Imagine a system that was smart enough to say “Based on your student profile, here is the segment of colleges similar students most commonly attend, what the average performance band is for that segment, and how a particular institution performs within that band across these factors.…”  We would address the thing for which we should be held most accountable, student impact, and we’d provide context. And what matters most -- our ability to move students along to a better education -- would start to matter most to everyone and we’d see dramatic shifts in behaviors in many institutions.

This is the hard one, of course, and I’m not saying that we ought to hold up a SURS until we work it out. We can do a lot of what I’m calling for and find ways to at least let institutions supplement their reports with the claims they make for learning and how they know.  In many disciplines, schools already report passage rates on boards, C.P.A. exams, and more.  Competency-based models are also moving us forward in this regard. 

These suggestions are not insurmountable hurdles to a national student unit record system. New America makes a persuasive case for putting in place such a system and I and many of my colleagues in the private, nonprofit sector would support one. 

But we need something better than a blunt instrument that replaces one kind of informational fog for another.  That is their goal too, of course, and we should now step back from looking at what kinds of data we can collect to also look at our broader design principles and what kinds things we should collect and how we can best make sense of that data for students and their families. 

Their report gives us a lot of the answer and smart guidance on how a system might work.  It should also be our call to action to further refine the design model to take into account the kinds of challenges outlined above.

Bio

Paul LeBlanc is president of Southern New Hampshire University.

 

 

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