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The National Student Clearinghouse is the closest thing the United States has to a national student-level record system, which makes it an increasingly potent tool for policy makers and researchers hoping to understand how students move into and through higher education. But like all data sources, it has its limitations, and a paper published by the National Bureau for Economic Research aims to help those using the clearinghouse do so effectively.

The paper (abstract available here), written by scholars at the University of Michigan and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, notes that the clearinghouse -- a nonprofit entity that had its start as a tool for tracking recipients of federal financial aid -- has transformed itself into a major source of studies produced by its own staff and a haven for researchers tapping into its data. But they point out as well that, like any data source, the clearinghouse has its flaws -- notably that there is substantial variation in how fully students are represented in certain sectors, states and population subgroups. "As research using NSC data becomes even more common, researchers need to be aware of the benefits and challenges of working with these data," the authors write.