Gates Foundation Sharpens Its Data Push

February 3, 2016

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation on Tuesday released a report on how some states and colleges are using data to improve student graduation and retention rates. The foundation said the report is based on a decade's worth of lessons learned.

The Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP) is working with the foundation to develop a forthcoming "metrics framework" that further refines the data areas identified in the new report. The foundation said it will work with policy makers and others to encourage the use of those metrics, including their use as a way to measure the effectiveness of the foundation's own investments. The IHEP report is slated for release in March.

The impetus for the data push is gaps in knowledge about "posttraditional" students, the foundation said, including low-income, first-generation and adult students.

"Higher education is reproducing privilege in this country," said Dan Greenstein, the director of education and postsecondary success in the foundation's U.S. program. "It's unsustainable."

Many data tools from the federal government and other sources have failed to keep up with changing demographics in higher education, according to the foundation.

"We can't answer some of the basic questions," said Jennifer Engle, a senior program officer for Gates who previously worked for IHEP. "We're going to have modernize our data systems."

The foundation said it has focused on metrics that many in higher education agree have value and where serious gaps remain. Those areas include data about students' progress toward a credential (including part-time students), time to completion, transfer rates, debt accumulated, employment after graduation, how much students learn in college and how they use that knowledge and those skills.

Gates last year announced its policy priority areas for college completion. The new report is part of that effort. The foundation has convened a working group it said will make specific policy recommendations later this year on how to improve institutional, state and federal data systems. Likely topics include a federal student unit record, public-private partnerships and improving the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS).

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