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New report on scarcity of “useful” postsecondary data details what questions students need answers to

questions-school-collegePostsecondary data should be able to answer certain questions, not only for higher-ed institutions, but for prospective students and the community, according to a new report. It’s up to national databases to help combat rising college costs and stagnating rates of completion through better collection and dissemination of data, the report notes.

The report, “Mapping the Postsecondary Data Domain: Problems and Possibilities,” produced by the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP) with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, asserts that seemingly straightforward questions such as which students have access to which colleges can’t easily be answered with currently available data.

“A careful mapping of federal data systems against these questions shows that while we have a solid base of understanding in some areas, we fall far short in others,” notes the report.

And though many voluntary data initiatives have arisen in recent years to help fill these gaps, the report emphasizes that there is still a ways to go before critical questions are answered.

(Next page: 4 questions institutions must answer)

“In a time of rising college costs and stagnating rates of completion, America’s students, policymakers, and colleges and universities need better information about our postsecondary education system,” says the report. “While their data needs do differ, each of these constituencies needs to be able to answer critical questions.”

Questions that students and communities should have answers to:

1. Which students have access to which colleges?

2. How many—and which—students complete college?

3. How much does college cost, and how do students pay?

4. What outcomes do students experience after college in the workplace and society?

5. Are students leaving school with loan debt, and are they paying back their loans, especially students who do not complete?

6. What types of jobs are students getting after college? Are they going to graduate school?

Questions relating specifically to one institution should include data to answer:

7. Do all entering students have assigned academic advisers?

8. To what extent does the school help students deal with their academic and social needs?

9. What percentage of students do community service; study in other countries?

10. What percentage of students gain internship or co-op experience before graduating?

The report explains that not every student may think to ask these questions, and it’s important that institutions provide clear information about these concerns as a proactive step.

“Minimally, institutions should break down data on student use of services by socioeconomic status and race/ethnicity, so as to ensure broad access to these programs and opportunities. All of this information should be easily accessible on websites and in marketing materials, as part of the mix of data available to students during the college search process,” according to the report.

The report also notes that not only is knowing this type of data critical for students deciding which institution to attend, it’s also crucial for parents, because when “low-income parents receive information about college outcomes, they act on it, allowing graduation rates to trump even location when identifying colleges to encourage their children to attend.”

For more information on what data sources are available now; the difference in questions for students, consumers, and institutions; and how data can be sorted by measure, data and interface, read the report.

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Meris Stansbury

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