The U.S. Education Department has made no secret of its thirst for a new database to track individual college students' progress throughout their academic careers,  which the federal Commission on the Future of Higher Education  called "a vital tool" that would "allow policy makers and consumers to evaluate the performance of institutions by determining the success of each institution’s students without knowing the identities of those students." But department officials also recognize that the concept's political prospects, while possibly on the upswing, remain dicey, given the strong opposition of some key members of Congress  and the even stronger opposition of some college officials,  particularly at private nonprofit institutions.
Department officials say they still plan to pursue the "unit records" database, as it is commonly known, and they are moving on several fronts -- including by seeking money for pilot projects in their 2008 budget request -- to make it a reality. But in recent weeks, they have also begun talking to researchers and higher education leaders about an alternative to the unit records idea that some college officials might dislike even more: a proposal to radically expand the size and scope of the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System  (IPEDS), in ways that would require colleges to report significantly more data to the government, potentially increasing their costs and time commitments.
Mark S. Schneider, the Education Department's commissioner for education statistics, describes the expansion of the data collection system -- which he and other officials there have dubbed "Huge IPEDS" -- as a "fallback position, in case the student longitudinal records system cannot work or does not work."
But some college officials who are familiar with the department's plans take a more cynical view. They speculate that the department may be floating an idea that would greatly add to colleges' reporting burden -- one association official estimates it as increasing the average college's IPEDS workload by 10-12 times -- as a way of making the unit records database look like not such a bad idea after all.
"Even with their choice of language -- 'huge' -- I think they're trying to make it a little bit scary to institutions that do not want an extra burden," said an official at one college group, who asked not to be identified. "It seems like a lever for the department to make an even stronger case why unit records makes more sense: We can collect less from you, yet have better information for consumers."
In an interview Thursday, when a reporter started to ask Schneider whether the department was floating Huge IPEDS to make unit records look more appealing, he interrupted and finished the question himself. "Are we consciously manipulating or putting Huge IPEDS on the table as a way of scaring postsecondary institutions into supporting longitudinal records?" he said. "Do you know how many times I've been asked that? Do you think I'm going to give you a Yes or No answer to that?"
He continued: "Look. The bottom line is, people want and need more data, and we're going to get it one way or the other. At the current time, we are pushing the student level progress data system. But Huge IPEDS is an alternative."
The 'Unit Records' Debate
The Education Department initially put forward its proposal to create the unit records database  in March 2005, and negative reaction came both from Republican leaders in Congress, who declared the proposal dead on arrival because of the perceived invasion of students' privacy, and from some academic leaders, particularly from private institutions.
But the work of the federal commission appointed last year by Education Secretary Margaret Spellings has breathed new life into the idea. Commissioners, and a sizable number of higher education researchers and leaders in the public college sector, have argued that such a database is necessary to really understand how today's college students are faring, given that they increasingly attend more than one institution and are more likely than not to go to college part time. Most existing national sources of data about student performance -- including IPEDS, which is the king of federal data collection systems -- track only full-time, first-time students, providing an incomplete sense of the overall picture. It also provides only aggregate data.
Exactly how the Spellings commission and the change of control in Congress will change the political outlook for unit records is unclear; certainly Republicans, who will be the minority party in the next Congress, have led the opposition to the idea, but Democrats may share some of their concerns. Schneider said in the interview Thursday that department officials are "pushing ahead" with unit records (a phrase that he, like other department officials, declines to use at this point because of the baggage it carries), planning to include a "proposal for a pilot study to test the feasibility" of the idea in the 2008 budget.
He also acknowledged that the department was exploring another possibility aimed at minimizing the privacy concerns surrounding the unit records database, in which colleges would submit their data on student progress and the personal information that identifies individual students to a "third party," which would be responsible for changing the personal information to a completely separate identifier, and then linking the new identifying information to the academic progress data. The government, then, would never touch or see the personal information about students. (Schneider declined to say who such a "third party" might be, but college lobbyists said department officials have suggested the National Student Clearinghouse,  which now works closely with colleges, lenders and others to track students' financial aid information.)
Because the outlook for unit records is so uncertain -- Congress is unlikely to even consider the idea until the middle of next year at the earliest -- it is only prudent, Schneider said, for the department to explore alternative ways of finding better data on student academic progress. Expanding IPEDS is one logical option, he said, because the department can decide to change its guidelines for IPEDS without Congressional approval. Right now, he said, department officials are in the process of determining just what kind of additional information they might seek that would provide more useful graduation rate and outcomes data. "We're thinking about what the expansion might look like, how many cells [of information to ask for], how difficult it would be, how costly."
The list of data is long: Schneider mentioned as being "under consideration" adding variables on students' ethnicity and income level, whether they are financially dependent or independent, live in-state vs. out of state and on campus or off campus, and whether they are married or single, among others. That would allow policy makers, college officials and researchers to get a much better sense, he argued, of how different types of students are performing, though it would still have the underlying limitation of IPEDS of including only full-time, first-time students, omitting part timers. (Schneider said department officials are also planning to collect more data about college costs and prices through IPEDS, although that change is a separate matter and likely to proceed whether or not the department chooses to seek more academic information.)
Schneider acknowledged that the department was walking a delicate line in deciding how to proceed with the IPEDS expansion, given the uncertainty of the unit records discussion. "We know we want more information and better information. We're not sure how hard to push on expanding the student component of IPEDS, because if we're going to move into the longitudinal records, we don't want to go too far down the road on asking universities for more data in the aggregate. We don't want to increase the burden on universities by doing this, and then move on to [unit records]."
One college association official who had been told about the department's plans said the IPEDS changes, if carried out, would result in a "12-fold increase in IPEDS reporting requirements in terms of the burden going to campuses."
While that prospect worried some officials, others speculated that the department might be raising the idea precisely to build support for unit records. One college lobbyist, who said department officials had referred to the IPEDS expansion as "humongous IPEDS" and "IPEDS on steroids" as well as "Huge IPEDS," called it the "Nightmare on Elm Street" scenario, "designed to scare people into saying, 'Okay, we'll take the modified unit records approach'" (the one with the third-party intervention).
Although Schneider scoffed at that suggestion, he did say that he believed "more and more postsecondary people are coming to the conclusion that it's cheaper, better, and faster to provide information as student records."