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As conversations swirl about how to improve higher education’s return on investment for students and taxpayers, those discussions often return to an issue that has vexed advocates and policymakers—data, or rather, the lack thereof.
The federal government has been barred by law since 2008 from creating a new database of student-level information. But advocates for a new system, including both Republican and Democratic members of Congress, say there’s a need for comprehensive information on student outcomes in higher education, citing important gaps in the data that are currently available.
“The current system is very incomplete, and piecemeal, and in some places duplicative and kind of convoluted,” said Mamie Voight, president and CEO of the Institute for Higher Education Policy, a nonpartisan research organization that has advocated for better data.
The federal government collects reams of data about higher education, but data systems are often not connected or inclusive of all students, limiting the information available. The graduation rate, for example, only includes students enrolled full-time and for the first time, leaving out part-time and transfer students. When the Education Department wanted to assess outcomes for transfer students, it had to draw on its National Student Loan Data System, which only includes students who receive federal financial aid, for its analysis.
Overturning the ban and improving data collection requires congressional action, and lawmakers have tried and tried over the past decade to address the issue. Their efforts eventually coalesced into the College Transparency Act—legislation that’s been proposed each session of Congress since 2017 but never passed, despite clearing the House in 2022.
Now there’s renewed hope for a solution after the legislation’s staunchest opponent, Virginia Foxx, the North Carolina Republican who chairs the House education committee, recently put forward a more limited version of the College Transparency Act. Her plan would create a postsecondary student data system limited mostly to students who receive federal financial aid.
“It’s a fundamental new day,” Craig Lindwarm, vice president of governmental affairs at the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, a CTA proponent, said in an interview last month shortly after Foxx’s proposal was introduced. “The disagreement is no longer on whether to create a student-level data network but rather how to do it. This is a pretty significant development.”
The bipartisan College Transparency Act—backed by 14 senators, 39 representatives and more than 150 nonprofits and advocacy organizations—would require colleges to collect and report data to the Education Department on student enrollment and completion rates, among other measures, for all programs, degree levels and students. That information would then be aggregated and reported in a publicly available database.
Foxx, who called the legislation “pure political hackery” in 2022, has argued that students who don’t receive federal assistance shouldn’t be tracked in any student-level database. Collecting data on others would violate the privacy of those who didn’t receive financial aid, she has said.
Foxx instead wants to create a student-level data network to track enrollment, completion rates and other key data points. But it would only include students who receive financial aid or other federal assistance, such as what comes from the Departments of Defense or Veterans Affairs. Participants in federal workforce-development programs also would be included.
The data-system proposal is part of Foxx’s wide-ranging College Cost Reduction Act, which would overhaul several higher education laws and was advanced out of committee on a party-line vote last month.
That proposed system would leave out about 30 percent of students. That could skew the data and would only marginally improve what’s currently available, advocacy organizations and higher education groups say. They note that the percentage of students left out of the system would vary by state and type of institution. For example, only about 20 percent of students in the California community college system would be counted. Because the state has a generous free college program for low-income students, fewer students have to apply for the federal Pell Grant.
It’s sort of like building a half-finished bridge.”—Mamie Voight, president and CEO of the Institute for Higher Education Policy
APLU and the American Association of Community Colleges opposed Foxx’s proposal in letters to the committee. AACC argued that the proposed system would leave out more than half of all community college students and said that including all students is “essential to creating a truly useful system.”
Foxx told Inside Higher Ed that neither her concern about privacy nor her opposition to the CTA have changed. She said the data provision in the College Cost Reduction Act is aimed at ensuring institutions and students have more information about the outcomes produced by individual academic programs. But “the federal government should have limits on what it collects,” she said. “Unlike the CTA, this still doesn’t allow unelected bureaucrats to handpick the data points that they want to collect.”
While Foxx’s previous attempts to reform higher education law haven’t included such a data system, she said she’s “always known that we need better information from the colleges if we were going to hold them accountable for student outcomes and taxpayer funding.”
Under her proposal, the Education Department would gather information about whether students are attending college full-time or part-time, taking classes online, or receiving a Pell Grant. In addition, the department would collect data on credential levels that students are seeking, along with their race or ethnicity, age, sex, program of study, and economic status. The reports would also indicate how many students are first generation and include measures of college readiness such as whether they had to take remedial classes.
Collecting that information would allow the department to break down data in ways that currently can’t happen. For example, the department can’t disaggregate earnings data by race and ethnicity, but it would be able to under the Foxx proposal.
Foxx said she’s giving CTA proponents what they’ve been seeking “without risking student privacy.”
“That’s the whole point,” she said. “We need information so schools and the federal government can make decisions based on which programs are doing what they’re supposed to be doing and which ones are not, without scooping up a lot of information that you shouldn’t have.”
She insisted that her proposal isn’t a compromise between the CTA and the 2008 ban she authored. “It’s not so much trying to find a middle ground on legislation,” she said. “It’s ‘what can we do to gather information and still protect the privacy of students who have no federal nexus?’”
But Voight at IHEP, which has explored how to create a student-level data network and backs the CTA, says measuring only the outcomes of some students—not all—simply wouldn’t work. Foxx’s proposal could jeopardize accurate outcomes, she argued, and end up presenting misleading information to students, families and policymakers.
“It’s sort of like building a half-finished bridge,” she said. “It isn’t going to get us where we need to go in terms of answering the critical questions.”
Voight also is concerned about how the system outlined in the College Cost Reduction Act could impact the current Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, a federal database that includes a range of information about colleges and universities. She’s worried that Foxx’s proposal would undermine that information that the federal government already collects from institutions about students or require colleges to report data to multiple systems.
“It’s either an increased burden or it’s a scale back in data quality and data availability,” she said. “And neither of those things is a promising movement.”
Voight pointed out that the federal government already has student-level data on earnings and other measures, but those are limited to financial aid recipients, similar to Foxx’s proposal. Adding other types of federal assistance, such as veterans’ education benefits, would only increase the overall coverage by 1 percent, she said.
“With the overall data being limited to only 70 percent of students, it’s still just a huge, gaping hole in the metrics themselves and only making very, very incremental improvements here upon the existing system,” she said.
But despite the disagreements that still exist, Voight and others see Foxx’s proposal as offering hope that the long-stymied CTA, or a version of it, could finally be closer to realization. It’s “a promising step,” she said, “to have this interest from [Foxx] in solutions around data and transparency.”