The U.S. Education Department is quietly moving ahead with plans to significantly expand the information and data it collects from colleges each year through an online survey -- including an entirely new section that would require institutions to report on the accountability measures they use and their scores on those tests or tools.
The proposal appears to be another prong in the department's multi-faceted campaign to carry out the recommendations of Education Secretary Margaret Spellings' Commission on the Future of Higher Education.  By proposing this expansion of what it collects through the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), the department could go a long way (without potentially controversial legislation or regulatory changes) toward achieving its goal of establishing a federal system for reporting student learning outcomes and other information on colleges' performance, as called for in the final report of Spellings Commission. The department's announcement says that most of the new information it is seeking to collect would be added to the department's existing Web site for college information, the College Opportunities Online Locator. 
Inside Higher Ed reported in December  that the department was contemplating such an expansion, which its officials had internally dubbed "Huge IPEDS," as an alternative to the more controversial federal "unit records" system.  (IPEDS is the federal government's primary database for information about colleges, their staffs and their students, although it doesn't collect information about individual students, like the unit records system the department also coverts.) In recent weeks, department officials had seemed to back away from the idea, telling a meeting of college association leaders as recently as this month that no such expansion of IPEDS was planned soon.
But in a January 24 announcement  in the Federal Register, the department seemed to be laying the groundwork for just that. The announcement invited comments on its annual proposal to revise what it collects from colleges through the postsecondary database system. In a document explaining its request,  which must be approved by the federal Office of Management and Budget, the department said that most of the changes were based on recommendations made by an advisory panel of users of the IPEDS database.
The document acknowledged, though, that some of the new information requests were driven by the report of the Spellings Commission, which called for the department to "collect data and provide information in a common format so that interested parties can create a searchable, consumer-friendly database that provides access to institutional performance and aggregate student outcomes in a secure and flexible format." (The Spellings report added: "The strategy for the collection and use of data should be designed to recognize the complexity of higher education, have the capacity to accommodate diverse consumer preferences through standard and customizable searches, and make it easy to obtain comparative information including cost, price, admissions data, college completion rates and, eventually, learning outcomes.")
Some of the department's requests, even if they flow from the Spellings Commission report, are unlikely to be particularly controversial. The data collection plan asks institutions, for instance, if they post their transfer of credit policies online, and to provide a link. It also asks them to report how many full- and part-time students are enrolled exclusively in online programs.
The two most significant categories of new information that the department is requesting (which, if approved by OMB, would be voluntary in 2007-8 and required in 2008-9) would be what the department calls "a new accountability part" and an expanded section of information about financial aid, which seems to be designed to help the department come up with a method of reporting on the "net price" that different categories of students might really pay (as opposed to the "sticker price" that gets widely reported) to attend a particular college.
Under the "new accountability part," colleges would be asked a set of four questions. Some are straightforward; the department asks if institutions have online "fact books" and if they post information on their Web sites about assessment or student learning outcomes, and requests links to those pages, which the department says it would add to the Web-based College Opportunities Online Locator.
But the department also asks whether colleges use specific student learning assessments, such as the National Survey of Student Engagement, Community College Survey of Student Engagement, Collegiate Learning Assessment, and National Measure of Academic Proficiency and Progress, and to specify which other assessment tools they use. Colleges would also be asked to say if the institution makes its results on these measures available online on its own Web site, and to provide the appropriate Web address, which would also be added to the COOL Web site.
The department's plan would also ask (and by 2008-9 require) colleges to provide, in matrix form, data on all accountability measures they use and "the institution's score" on those measures. (The document does not make clear whether this information would be shared with the public, but if it would, colleges that now use these surveys and tests for internal purposes only would presumably be forced to reveal them.) The department's request that a college report a single score for the institution is likely to renew concerns higher education leaders have expressed that the Spellings Commission's push for accountability is overly simplistic, since most accountability measures that institutions use can't be summed up in one "score."
George D. Kuh, a professor of higher education at Indiana University and the director of the National Survey of Student Engagement, said the idea of collecting information about which accountability measures colleges were using and posting links on the department's Web site to their results made good sense.
But trying to collect information about colleges' scores on various accountability measures through one or two cells in a spreadsheet is "singularly problematic," Kuh said. The fewest number of scores an institution could report to even begin to make its NSSE results meaningful, he said, is 10 -- scores for both first-year students and seniors on each of the survey's five main measures. But even that, he said, would fail to tell any interested parent or student how that student might fare at that institution, because it wouldn't take into account his or her gender or race, whether he or she started at the institution or transferred in, etc.
"That's where it becomes problematic and potentially very misleading to the public," Kuh said. "It may not be very well thought through at this point."
Clifford Adelman, a longtime Education Department researcher who is now a senior associate at the Institute for Higher Education Policy, echoed Kuh's comments, describing the accountability grid as taking an "incredibly dangerous, reductionistic" approach. "It implies that there is a finite, standardized set of acceptable measures on which institutions can receive 'scores,' and that these 'scores' (whatever that means) can be annualized," Adelman said.
More Information on Financial Aid
The other major category of expanded information that the department proposes collecting relates to financial aid. The proposal calls for colleges to report significantly more information about the kind of financial aid that their students receive (from the current four categories to seven (Pell Grants, Academic Competitiveness Grants, other federal grants, state grants, institutional grants, federal subsidized loans, federal unsubsidized loans, and other loans).
Then colleges would then be asked to fill out a 9-cell grid in which they would break those aid recipients down by their dependency status (dependent, independent with dependents, independent without dependents), their living arrangements (on campus, off campus without family, off campus with family), and, at public institutions, whether they attend in-district, in-state, and out-of-state.
The additional financial aid information that the department is seeking to collect would appear to further its goal of reporting information related to colleges' net price rather than their sticker price. Collecting information about financial aid recipients based on whether they live on campus or off, etc., would go part of the way toward allowing the department to report how much different types of students really pay for their college educations on average.
But college financial aid administrators warn that while the proposed expansion of IPEDS would provide better information than the department now has at its disposal, the information the department would be able to provide would be too generalized to significantly help individual students. "I'd be concerned about how accurate it would be, if families depend on it too much," said Pam Fowler, director of financial aid at the University of Michigan.
Fowler also noted that some of the information the department seeks to collect in this part of the new collection would be extremely difficult and time consuming to track down. For instance, her office does not even collect data on students' living situations, which would only be available from the Free Application for Federal Student Assistance.
A department spokeswoman, Samara Yudof, said that some of the changes the department is seeking in its IPEDS proposal, including some related to the race and ethnicity of students, have been mandated by federal law. "Others are merely under consideration and reflect an interest by [the National Center for Education Statistics] in gathering additional information," she said. "The department will carefully consider any comments received during the public comment period before making decisions about changes in IPEDS."
Comments are due by March 26.