Bipartisan Bill for Evidence Could Improve Access to Higher Ed Data

In a rare sign of both civility and smart thinking on Capitol Hill, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) introduced a bill before the holidays that would take first steps to make lawmakers consider policy in a way they rarely do: with evidence.

Ryan’s and Murray’s Evidence-Based Policy-Making Commission Act of 2014 would establish a commission of 15 appointed members. Since you can’t have evidence-based policy without good data to back it up, the commission would initially survey the types of federal data that are already available to inform policymaking. It would then produce recommendations related to data the government needs but doesn’t have—more specifically, asking whether and how to create a clearinghouse that would facilitate linkages between existing federal datasets that can help answer critical questions. In the higher education arena, this approach could be a huge win for students, families, taxpayers, and policymakers.

Right now, prospective college students face an odd information gap when making one of the most important (and expensive) decisions of their lives. They are bombarded with information about how prospective colleges rank in terms of hot guys, delivery food, and partying, but can’t get basic, accurate answers to other, critical questions. Students can look for graduation rates at particular colleges, but these numbers only reflect full-time students who are enrolled in the school for the first time. Incoming college students can check each school’s website to see what they charge for tuition–but not what they themselves can expect to pay after scholarships and grants, or how much debt they’ll likely take on. And the biggest sticking point for many students: They have no idea whether graduates of a particular institution go on to find jobs and earn a living that allows them to repay their increasingly large student debt loads.

Meanwhile, the colleges themselves are drowning in federal reporting requirements. Each school owes more than half a dozen separate surveys to the Department of Education, as required by Congress, each year. Collectively, they spend hundreds of thousands of hours annually parsing the data and ensuring it’s accurate and compliant. And these burdens will only increase as Congress tries to answer more specific questions about a changing student body–one that is increasingly non-traditional in age or study path.

It doesn’t have to be this way. A student unit record system, which would link existing data sources, could help answer critical questions and reduce burden for colleges and universities. And it might be just what Ryan and Murray have in mind for higher education. Earlier this year, Rep. Ryan released a comprehensive anti-poverty plan that included creating a federal clearinghouse for data related to federal policies, similar to one outlined in the Evidence-Based Policy-Making Commission Act. Ryan stated explicitly that the clearinghouse could pull in existing unit record data from the National Student Clearinghouse, a private organization that provides services to colleges and universities. And although Ryan’s plan didn’t go into great detail about the federal educational data sets that could go into the clearinghouse, it’s easy to imagine some of the contenders. Despite loud, bipartisan support for veterans, we have no idea which colleges are serving them well and which are providing a shoddy education just to collect generous GI Bill benefits. If data on the Department of Veterans Affairs education benefits were linked to Social Security Administration earnings records, veterans and policymakers could see which colleges are worth their time and money, as well as those schools that definitely are not.

There’s no doubt that connecting administrative datasets across the federal government won’t be easy. With sizeable databases like the ones maintained by the Department of Education and the Social Security Administration, matching records is hardly simple, and the need for intensive privacy and data security protections is magnified. But it beats the alternative of adding thousands more hours to schools’ annual paperwork every time a member of Congress has a new question about postsecondary education and continuing to operate in a trust-and-don’t-verify world.

The unrealized potential of a student unit record data system could be astronomical. Although it seems intuitive that lawmakers should rely on evidence as they craft policy, few programs to date actually do so in a substantive way. For instance, while students know they need to attend college to see economic success, there’s no one willing to tell them which colleges won’t help them find successful careers—even when those schools receive billions in taxpayer dollars to do so. A student unit record system like the clearinghouse that Ryan and Murray propose could be a launching pad for a brave new policy world in which evidence (gasp!) informs decisions.

[Cross-posted at Ed Central]

Clare McCann

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