Last week, both the House and Senate key education committees took a step forward on reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, the House with a white paper outlining principles for reform and the Senate with a draft comprehensive bill. Despite both the Republicans’ and Democrats’ rhetoric calling for increased transparency, neither bill makes the one small change–repealing the ban on a federal student unit record data system– that could make a big difference in helping students find the right school.

Right now, institutions report data required by Congress on student enrollment, demographics, finance, and outcomes to the Department of Education through a series of complicated and time-consuming surveys that feed into/are administered by the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). But lawmakers have also dictated that for certain measures, namely graduation rates, only students who are enrolled in college full-time and who have never attended before “count.” This means that schools are required to count separate cohorts of students separately and report the data, a time-consuming task for institutions. And schools that transfer many of their students–say, community colleges whose students go on to earn bachelor’s degrees at four-year colleges–are forced to count those students as college dropouts.

The priorities document released last week by Republicans on the House Education and the Workforce Committee takes the current  burdensome system and supersizes it. It would expand (IPEDS). Some of the information that the House document says lawmakers want, like Pell Grant completion rates by institution and outcomes data for more than first-time, full-time students, is doable right now. But as the Institute for Higher Education Policy pointed out in its report Mapping the Postsecondary Data Domain: Problems and Possibilities, many of the data points that students and policymakers want or need–like post-college earnings and learning outcomes–cannot be done easily. If Congress wants better information but insists on running it through IPEDS, burden will explode as institutions face an ever-growing list of different student cohorts, data points, and calculations.

That’s where the national student unit record data system comes into play. As we described in our own report, College Blackout: How the Higher Education Lobby Fought to Keep Students in the Dark, colleges could simply upload the data files they already keep with students’ dates of enrollment, financial aid, and completion date to the Department of Education. The Department would link student records to find more accurate graduation rates, reduce institutional reporting, and provide students could with significantly better information on graduates’ outcomes.

The Senate Higher Education Act bill that came out of Sen. Tom Harkin’s (D-IA) office, according to an article published in The Chronicle of Higher Education before the bill’s release, was supposed to include a provision to create that unit record system. The final draft as released last week didn’t include the text of that provision (the reasons aren’t clear, but we’ll grant that it is a complicated policy shift to squeeze into the bill while trying to keep pace with the nearly half-dozen higher education bills announced in the last few weeks). But Harkin’s office has said it is committed to a student unit record system, saying in the press release that heralded the bill’s arrival, “Chairman Harkin believes other policies need to be addressed as part of any reauthorization of HEA, including the development of a student unit record system…” The last Higher Education Act reauthorization wasn’t completed for five years after the previous bill expired, so Harkin rightly assumes there’s plenty of time to write the provision and ensure its inclusion in the final bill. But if policymakers on both sides of the aisle are as committed to increasing transparency in higher education as they say they are, they shouldn’t wait for a full reauthorization to make this small change that would make a huge difference.

[Cross-posted at Ed Central]

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Clare McCann

Clare McCann is a policy analyst with the Education Policy Program at the New America Foundation. Find her on Twitter: @claremccann