Another Way on Unit Records

Amid objections to a federal system of student-level academic data, a "national" system is emerging, report finds.
February 12, 2007

Politically, the idea of creating a data system to track the increasingly disjointed progress of students into and through higher education is an explosive one. Private institutions, particularly, object to the idea, and fears about security and the potential invasion of student privacy have thus far stymied Bush administration interest in creating a federally governed system.

But in lieu of a federal system, a "national" system to track student progress is well on its way to emerging from the independent systems that the vast majority of states already have, the Lumina Foundation for Education says in a new report. The report, "Critical Connections: Linking States’ Unit Record Systems to Track Student Progress," suggests that more cooperation among states, perhaps with the guiding hand of a nonprofit entity or agency, could achieve many if not most of the goals of a politically less feasible federalized system -- and reach a surprisingly wide range of institutions, including private ones.

The Lumina report, by Peter Ewell and Marianne Boeke of the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, follows a similar 2003 review of the status of state systems that track data at the student level, which found that 39 states had such databases for all or parts of their public higher education systems and that it would be feasible to link those databases into a comprehensive network.

Since that time, support for such a network has grown in many quarters, prompted by reports like those of the National Commission on Accountability and the Secretary of Education's Commission on the Future of Higher Education. But so, too, has opposition, and Congressional Republicans, exhorted particularly by officials at independent colleges, have quashed efforts to involve the federal government in creating such a network. The Bush administration shows no signs of giving up, however: The president's 2008 budget plan included funds to stimulate state efforts on creating unit record systems and to“conduct a pilot study on the development of a postsecondary student level data system that is essential for computing postsecondary completion rates and measuring the true costs of higher education.”

The new Lumina report, based on an updated survey, largely skirts the idea of a federal unit records system -- noting only that the potential establishment of one is "years" away -- and focuses instead on the feasibility of a national system emerging from the burgeoning collection of state level systems.

The number of states that have student level data systems for higher education systems has grown by only one since 2003, to 40, the Lumina report finds. But because most of the states that lack them are relatively small (except for Michigan and Pennsylvania), and the vast majority of all students attend the public institutions that are typically included in the state databases, those state systems collectively cover 81 percent of all college students, according to the Lumina study.

Although the number of state databases has changed little since 2002, their reach has expanded. Perhaps the most surprising change is that 17 of the states now draw at least some information from private institutions, four (soon to be seven) collect data on all independent colleges, and six others include information from for-profit institutions. "The growing number of states that include all independent institutions and those that now include proprietary institutions is especially striking in light of private college associations’ vigorous opposition to establishing a federal unit record system," the authors write.

The Lumina study examines in detail the similarities and differences between the various state systems, in terms of the types of information they collect, how integrated they are with other data systems in their states (about half, for instance, are linked to databases for high schools or employment), and how successfully they track students' movement between two- and four-year colleges (most report transfer rates, but far fewer report on students' academic performance after they transfer). The report also notes that states are increasingly moving away from using Social Security numbers to track students, which has raised significant security concerns, and that none of the systems has encountered security breaches.

As well, the report says that many state officials report that financial and staff limitations severely restrict how much use they are able to make of the data the unit record systems can generate.

Despite the variability in the existing state systems, the authors of the Lumina report say that "it is feasible to further harness these databases to create a national capability to track student progress." It lays out several steps for getting there:

  • Creating comparable data measures. The country is "quite close," the report says, to establishing a "consistent 'common core' of data elements to populate" the unit record systems -- less likely through a common set of definitions and codes, which would require changes in many states' systems, than through a set of codes and tables that would allow for the state data to be converted and compared.
  • Establishing a "national capacity to link unit record data quickly and securely." The technology exists, but some centralizing organization -- ideally "an interstate compact" or independent nonprofit agency -- would need to manage it. Technology already exists to accomplish this task, and the efficiency of creating a single utility to handle the needs of many potential users is apparent.
  • Better linking the higher education data systems to the emerging data systems for public elementary and secondary education.
  • Altering federal privacy laws so they aren't used to impede legitimate educational research. Colleges often cite the Family Educational Educational Rights and Privacy Act when they don't want to provide data requested through state unit records systems, the Lumina report says. "(FERPA) was never intended to impede legitimate educational research." (Development of the system in Kentucky was recently slowed down by one registrar's complaint that providing student-level grade data would violate the federal law, a position eventually rejected, says Ewell.) There should be a concerted, multistate effort on the part of higher education agencies to press the Department of Education to re-regulate FERPA so that the law reflects state and federal interests in improving evidence-based educational practices," the Lumina report says.

Political opposition may forestall a federal unit records database, the Lumina report suggests. But the value to students and policy makers of the information that such data systems can provide is too important not to pursue through other means, it says. "The existence and use of such data resources are a necessary condition for achieving the widely held policy goal of increasing the numbers of citizens who make it through the 'educational pipeline' and attain postsecondary credentials," the report concludes. "And these data resources are now at a point where a concerted, cross-state development effort would be a very wise investment."


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