The Information Gap: Much Talk, Little Progress

There is still far too much data that we don't have about how higher education is performing, Dennis P. Jones argues.

November 21, 2008

In 2000, the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education released the first 50-state report card on higher education performance. Measuring Up 2000 assessed states on how well they were doing in preparing students for college, providing access to college, making college affordable, and promoting completion of certificates and degrees. That groundbreaking report also highlighted areas where objective, comparative data were lacking, most notably student learning outcomes.

Eight years later, a number of states have used the report card to drive conversations about improving public higher education policy. But despite all the talk in Washington and state capitals about the need for better data and more robust accountability systems, we have made little progress in filling critical information gaps and have even moved backward in some areas. Our efforts to make higher education more accessible and affordable will stall unless we change this.

These information gaps extend from high school through graduate school and indicate that for every step forward, we have taken a step back in having the data states and institutions need to better inform decision-making about how to increase college access and success while containing costs.

In the area of college preparation, state-level data have moved forward and backward. On the positive side, states do have better data about who is making it through high school. But they know less about course-taking in high school math and science because fewer states are participating in national surveys in these areas today than in 2000. And while most states administer the 12th grade version of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), state-level results are still not available.

The nation has made no headway in getting a better handle on who is making it to college. Nationally, we can track college enrollment rates by race/ethnicity and income, but at the state level, enrollment rates by income are still not available. Additionally, we can say little (if anything) about what happens to students who cross state lines for college after they first enroll.

There have been small steps forward in gauging college affordability, but there are more steps to be taken. We can now track undergraduate and graduate student loan borrowing separately, a significant improvement over 2000. The 2004 edition of the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS) provided valuable information about whether and how aid packages change for students after the freshman year; unfortunately, the study only covered about a quarter of the states. Moreover, we are still not in a position to assess unmet financial need for students at the state level.

Even on critical issues such as determining whether students are completing programs on-time or at all, we know a little more, but still not enough. The U.S. Department of Education’s Graduation Rate Survey now provides comparative data on first-time, full-time students completing degrees at three-, four-, five-, and six-year intervals. But these data provide a limited picture because a six-year timeframe is too short for many students (especially working adults) and because the survey cannot account for transfers or more importantly those who start as part-time students. We also have an incomplete picture of progress and completion for students who move across states during their college career, since not all states are participating in a data-sharing effort through the National Student Clearinghouse (and that database was not created to serve the analytic function we’re now asking of it).

Despite all the hue and cry about student learning since 2000, we have actually taken a step backward in gathering comparable state-level data. Most of the movement in the last eight years has focused on individual campuses and systems, through efforts such as the Collegiate Learning Assessment and the Voluntary System of Accountability. Perhaps the biggest step backward has been in the measurement of adult skills. The number of states participating in the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) fell from 13 in 1992 to just six in 2003, and the 2003 data are still not available for all the participating states.

In just a few weeks, state legislatures will convene to face the biggest budget crisis in a generation. Unfortunately, they will have to make difficult decisions about priorities without the benefit of better information about the most urgent needs for getting more students to and through college at a price they can afford. This makes it more likely that we will see the usual responses -- raising tuition, capping enrollment, cutting across-the-board -- that will put states further behind in the race to grow a competitive work force.

We can fix this. It is time for every state -- and the nation -- to commit to getting the information needed to increase the size of our college-educated population, and to halt the worrisome slide of the United States relative to other advanced nations on higher education outcomes.


Dennis P. Jones is the president at the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, a research and development center founded to improve the management effectiveness of colleges and universities. He serves on the National Advisory Group for Measuring Up 2008, the national and state report card on higher education issued by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. Measuring Up 2008 will be released on December 3, when it will be available for viewing and download on the National Center's Web site.


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