It has become an article of faith among many policy makers in the United States that the country needs better data about student progress through higher education and into the work force. The perceived inadequacy of currently available federal and state information, for accountability and institutional improvement purposes alike, has prompted a drive by the Obama administration and its foundation partners in the “completion agenda” to strengthen federal, and state and institutional data collection and usage.
This is far from an American affliction, a new report suggests.  The study, by the European University Association and several other groups, shows that while many individual institutions and national higher education systems on the continent have in place structures for tracking the movement of students and graduates, the extent to which higher education leaders make use of the data varies widely.
Like their American peers, European colleges and universities are facing increasing calls to show that their students are progressing academically and their graduates succeeding in the job market, and to be more publicly transparent about their outcomes.
Yet despite that pressure, “little attention has so far been paid to the importance of tracking student progress in this context,” Maria Helena Nazaré, president of the European University Association, writes in the foreword to the report, which is designed to examine the “state of play” on following learners’ and graduates’ progress across institutions in the 32 higher education systems in Europe. The study is part of a new effort named TRACKIT.
As might not be surprising, given the wide mix of countries and institutions represented across Europe, enormous variation exists in how institutions and systems are tracking students. Twenty-three higher education systems have mechanisms in place for regional or national-level tracking of current students, with a majority (16) using administrative data collected by a nationally (usually federally) financed database to which institutions are required to provide information. Some other countries use surveys to supplement the administratively collected data, which two countries -- Germany and France -- depend wholly on surveys, according to the report.
Tracking of graduates at the national level is more widespread, with 26 of 32 higher education systems gathering data nationally, and almost half of those doing so at least every three years. (The others collect data on graduates sporadically, the report states.)
In a majority of European countries (22 of 31 that reported data to the survey), all institutions track the academic progress of their current students, although in others, such as Belgium, Italy and Poland, only some institutions do. Such tracking is mandatory in countries such as Austria, Bulgaria, Norway, Spain and Turkey, and tied to funding or accreditation in others (such as Denmark and Lithuania).
And institutions in 28 higher education systems track their graduates into the work force or on to postgraduate study, although because most of that information is garnered from surveys rather than from administrative data, the information is used more for promotional purposes (showing that graduates are succeeding) than for accountability purposes, the report states.
Many of the limitations that surround student data collection in the U.S. are present in Europe as well, according to the report. In most cases, it states, tracking of students focuses on full-time bachelor's-degree students, ignoring or failing to take note of what in the U.S. might be called nontraditional students -- "lifelong learning, international, and mobile students" -- even as such students account for 20 percent or more of the population at some institutions.
And while some countries have crafted systems that allow for the tracking of individualized students, through what in the context of the U.S. public policy debate is known as a national "unit records" system that has been forbidden by Congress, most European countries do not, and "in many countries data protection laws would prevent such an approach," the report states.
Clifford Adelman, a senior associate at the Institute for Higher Education Policy and an analyst of both student learning and international higher education, applauded the development of TRACKIT, which he said was particularly necessary in the wake of the Bologna project aimed at harmonizing European higher education.
And while several of the limitations cited in the European study are evident in American attempts to keep tabs on student outcomes, Adelman said -- notably the difficulties in gauging graduates' labor market outcomes -- the TRACKIT study in general shows that for all the criticisms of U.S. data collection, it fares well comparatively.
"We shouldn’t be smug, but [the Education Department's National Center for Education Statistics] has been far away ahead of any other agency in the world in presenting long-term student histories through its longitudinal studies," Adelman said.