The U.S. Education Department announced Thursday that it would rein in its recent proposal to significantly expand the information it collects annually from colleges through a federal online database.
Although a notice published Thursday in the Federal Register declined to specify which of the proposed new information the department would forgo, the department's top research official said its leaders would almost definitely not ask colleges to report on how they fare on measures of student learning outcomes. It would be inappropriate for the federal government to collect that type of information, said Grover J. (Russ) Whitehurst, director of the Institute for Education Sciences.
"We understand in the current environment that people see this as a foot in the door for a potential move some time in the future to require some kind of student learning outcome, by providing strong incentives to collect that," Whitehurst said. "We think that's a state or association role to move in that direction. It exceeds the response of a federal authority or control to be incentivizing that kind of collection."
The department's plan to drastically expand the data it collects through the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System -- a project that had been dubbed "Huge IPEDS" -- has generated significant anxiety among higher education researchers and lobbyists, coming as it did, when first reported by Inside Higher Ed, in the context of a push by the department's political leaders to carry out the accountability proposals made by the Secretary of Education's Commission on the Future of Higher Education.
College leaders have viewed the proposal to expand the requirements for data collection with suspicion, as a back door way -- skirting the need for new federal law or regulation -- to achieve the commission's call for colleges to report publicly how they fare in educating students.
As recently as last month, Sara Martinez Tucker, the under secretary of education, insisted at a meeting of higher education association leaders that the department was not expanding its collection of information through IPEDS, the government's primary database for information about colleges, their staffs and their students. When it was reported last month that the department had set the possibility of such data collection in motion in January, with the publication of a notice in the Federal Register, some college leaders accused department leaders of misleading them.
But Whitehurst insisted repeatedly (and with passion) Thursday that he, Tucker and the department's other political leaders had been completely unaware that the requests for information had been published in the Federal Register, which they learned about the requests only from press reports, he said.
"I can assure you that I, the under secretary, the deputy secretary, the secretary -- no senior officer in the department knew that the notice had been posted or what the content was. We were caught off-guard by it," Whitehurst said in an interview with Inside Higher Ed, adding, "You're the one who alerted me to it."
He asserted that the department's top officials are not typically involved in the processes of deciding what changes to make in data collection or in placing notices in the Federal Register -- most of which are routine -- and that they are supposed to be consulted when those decisions raise "policy issues." "In this case, somebody had a deaf ear to the larger policy implications of what the secretary and under secretary are trying to do," he said. "Clearly this was a policy issue. It should have been discussed and cleared, and it was not. It was a failure of judgment down at that level as to what needed consultation."
The terse new notice published Thursday in the Federal Register said that early responses to the department's January notice announcing the possible expanded data collection had persuaded department officials that they should "revise the proposed collection by removing some of the new items proposed for this annual data collection." Thursday's notice did not say which information the department had decided not to collect, and Whitehurst said that "no final decisions" would be made until the comment period ends March 26. In addition to the accountability proposal, college leaders have also objected that the notice's call for significantly expanded reporting about the financial aid institutions provide to students, which officials have said would impose a significant reporting burden.)
But Congressional staff members said that a department official had told them Wednesday that the department would abandon the proposal to ask colleges to report which tests and other measures of student learning outcomes they use, as well as their scores on those measures.
Whitehurst said that was "very likely," given that department officials had concluded that that is not the sort of information a federal agency should collect.