Elusive Data on Education and Workforce

Despite $640 million in federal spending, many holes remain in state databases that try to link college outcomes to the employment market.

January 8, 2015

After eight years of work and $640 million in federal spending, state data systems that seek to link education and the workforce remain riddled with holes.

That was the conclusion of the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) in a report released in November. The GAO looked at two federal grant programs to support states’ development of “longitudinal" data systems that try to follow students as they move from early education to K-12, college and employment.

The good news is that states are using some of the resulting data to “inform policy decisions and shape research agendas,” according to the report. And 31 states have the ability to track some people all the way through their educations and into the workforce.

However, the data are typically limited. And the report found widespread problems in matching information from various databases, particularly tracking individuals across the gap between college or high school and the employment market.

For example, only 14 states can match at least 95 percent of unique, individual records between higher education and the workforce. The report found that 36 states could match at least some records.

Most states also are unable to match data comprehensively, according to the report. Few share all the types of data across sectors. And the general public cannot access some of the databases easily, experts said.

The GAO’s findings aren’t new. Much of the November report was based on the results of a 2013 survey by the Data Quality Campaign, a nonprofit group. But several experts said the GAO report is a good overview of the remaining shortcomings with state data systems, which the U.S. Department of Education chipped in $613 million to help build, with more coming from the Labor Department. The funding was mostly a one-time infusion, which came from the federal stimulus package.

"This is a lot of money and this is what we got,” said Mark Schneider, a vice president at the American Institutes for Research and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “Something went wrong here.”

Student Unit Record

The U.S. Congress in 2008 passed a ban on creating a federal database to track students across higher education and into the workforce. Critics of a so-called “student unit record” say it would threaten student privacy. Proponents say such a single, federal system would provide a badly needed way of tracking the value of a higher education.

“Connecting the data dots on education and jobs is not a technical problem, but a political problem,” Mary Alice McCarthy, a senior policy analyst at the foundation who previously worked for the Labor and Education Departments, said in an email. “The capacity is there. The barriers are political. And they are not well-understood by the general public, even as people are alarmed by the rising cost of college and concerns about the return to their educational investments.”

State databases yield the most complete information while a federal student unit record remains off the table. Commonly used data sources for linking records between college and the workforce include unemployment insurance wage records and unemployment benefits claims.

Social Security numbers are also used, but not in all states. Some, including Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia, prohibit the collection of Social Security numbers in K-12 education data. It is optional in other states. Yet matching up education and workforce data is a challenge without those numbers, the report said.

Common last names and unreliable dates of birth often trip up databases that lack Social Security numbers, said Rachel Zinn, director of the Workforce Data Quality Campaign, a nonprofit group affiliated with the National Skills Coalition.

The GAO’s findings are consistent with an October report from the campaign. Zinn said that report found that at least 37 states are making progress on using unemployment insurance records to measure employment outcomes for multiple education and workforce programs.

“That data can go a long way toward figuring out whether programs are really helping people and the economy succeed,” she said in an email.

State officials are worried about sustaining their data systems after the federal money is gone, according to the GAO report. And plenty of work remains, experts said, including the transition from capacity-building to the more widespread use of the databases.

“It was conceived of as more of an IT project,” said Schneider.

Zinn agreed, saying policy applications for the state data have been lacking so far.

“A lot of this has been driven by people who didn’t have the big picture in mind,” she said.

That’s changing. Zinn said the databases are getting more user-friendly. And state officials now buy into the data’s value, at least for the most part, she said.


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