Why Better Data Holds the Key to Improving Student Outcomes: A Q&A with Mamie Voight of the Institute for Higher Education Policy

Insights & Outlooks: How has the national conversation around outcomes in higher education evolved in recent years?

Mamie Voight: For too long, we have struggled to answer key questions about outcomes in higher education—questions like: Who graduates from college? How do students fare in the workforce after college? How do outcomes vary by race/ethnicity and income? Our current postsecondary data systems are cumbersome, duplicative, and worst of all, they fail to count all students, making these types of questions especially difficult to answer for part-time students, transfer students, and students who do not receive federal financial aid.

In recent years, the higher education field has come to recognize these significant limitations and momentum has been building around the urgent need for better student outcomes data and more transparency within higher education. These issues garner support from the right, the left, and everywhere in between because people recognize the inherent value in providing students, families, policymakers, institutions, and businesses with better information on postsecondary outcomes to empower college choice, institutional improvements, and evidence-based policymaking. Since the last reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, we have seen a sea change in support for comprehensive solutions to the information challenges faced by our nation’s higher education system.

Insights & Outlooks: What are the barriers that you see to designing federal policies with student outcomes in mind?

Mamie Voight: The primary barrier to evidence-based policymaking is the lack of complete, high-quality data – a barrier driven by the federal ban on student-level data collection. Policymakers and practitioners often hesitate to use the data we do have because it is incomplete, duplicative, and insufficient. These limitations exist largely because we are unable to seamlessly measure outcomes at the student level.

For example, until the recent addition of Outcome Measures (OM) in the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), the field has been forced to rely upon graduation rates for first-time, full-time students—rates that omit about half of today’s college-going population. Even now that the OM data exist, they still are insufficient to answer questions about transfer between two and four-year institutions and racial inequities in outcomes. Similarly, while the College Scorecard made data on post-college earnings available for each institution for the first time, those workforce outcomes omit about one-third of students—those who do not receive federal financial aid.

With our current data system, it is nearly impossible to meaningfully assess which institutions and programs are serving all students well and what policies and practices have been effective in closing equity gaps. Until the community trusts that the data are complete, policymakers and practitioners will hesitate to use them.

Insights & Outlooks: Why has the use of postsecondary data to improve student outcomes proven to be such a challenge?

Mamie Voight: The challenge comes down to questions of data availability and quality. When policymakers and practitioners have access to high-quality data that they trust to be complete, they use it. For instance, we’ve seen institutions successfully harness data to improve student success. Consider Georgia State University (GSU), which has boosted its graduation rates by about 20 percentage points since 2003 and closed racial gaps in completion. GSU made these gains through a concerted focus on data to uncover systemic inequities, intervene with individual students, and inform campus reforms. Or, examine the University of Texas System’s SeekUT effort to give students dashboard information about how much they can expect to borrow and earn at each program on each campus.

Despite these shining examples from institutions, data-use can be intimidating. The perception is often that data-use requires an advanced degree in statistics and, because of this, data-use can often end up siloed in specific departments on campuses. But we know that data is for everyone, and that policy and practices are more effective when a culture of data-use is created and nurtured. Data should never be collected simply for data’s sake. Rather, it should always be used as a key driver of improvement. Policymakers, institutions, accreditors, and all stakeholders should see data as an essential tool in their decision-making toolbox—an accessible one that simply requires an inquisitive mind that seeks answers to pressing questions about student success and educational equity. Those answers should lead to more questions, and soon, to changes in policies and practices that make a difference in the lives of students.

Insights & Outlooks: What policy fixes can you think of that would make it easier for policymakers to access evidence and research on practices that work?

Mamie Voight: The primary barrier for effective postsecondary data-use is the current ban on collecting student-level data, so the best place to start is by overturning that ban. The bipartisan, bicameral College Transparency Act (CTA) would accomplish this in a comprehensive way. The bill would create a secure, privacy-protected student-level data network that would produce institution- and program-level data on college access, completion, cost, and outcomes to inform decision making. By matching existing data at the federal and institution level, CTA would allow students, families, state and federal policymakers, institutions, and business to answer questions about college outcomes—questions they cannot currently answer. It would facilitate consumer choice, encourage evidence-based decisions, advance equity, and increase transparency, particularly around how well institutions and programs are serving low-income students and students of color.

More fundamentally, we need policymakers and practitioners to commit to using data to evaluate all existing and proposed policies and practices, and to ensure that all solutions are evidence-based and aimed at closing equity gaps and promoting strong outcomes for all students.