Gates Foundation sounds call for stronger higher ed data infrastructure

New policy focus announced Tuesday alongside release of 'Answering the Call' report

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation plans to throw its hefty weight behind an improved data infrastructure for higher education. The current system has notable gaps that keep policymakers from knowing how nontraditional students do in college, whether graduates find jobs in their fields, whether students who don’t graduate from one institution find success after transferring to another, and how much debt students take on, among other things.

Importantly, the metrics that do make it to the policy table often ignore nontraditional students, who now make up a majority of all undergraduates, providing skewed data. Another gap comes with the College Scorecard, which was both criticized and celebrated for its wealth of data. The scorecard only offers employment and earnings data for students who received federal aid, leaving out more than 40% of all college students.

In its new report, "Answering the Call: Institutions and States Lead the Way Toward Better Measures of Postsecondary Performance," the Gates Foundation announced a working group that will publish a series of papers with recommendations to strengthen institutional, state, and national systems, increasing the flow of information between them, to improve the overall data infrastructure.

"Better data alone will not guarantee better student outcomes, but a lack of better data will guarantee that our efforts to improve those outcomes will fall short of their potential," the report says.

Short of its forthcoming recommendations, the Gates Foundation released a metrics framework in its latest paper, created in partnership with the Institute for Higher Education Policy. The framework is based on a consensus among institutions, organizations, and states that have implemented their own robust data collection efforts. It highlights access, progression, completion, cost, and post-college outcomes across three areas: performance, efficiency, and equity.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation
 

The long-term goal? To develop a national data strategy that increases breadth and quality while reducing duplication and the burden on institutions and also securing data privacy and security. The data that the Gates Foundation and IHEP focus on are those many schools have already voluntarily begun collecting to better serve their own students. If any of these data requirements become federal policy, however, they will almost certainly mean more work for institutions.

Jennifer Engle, author of the report and the Gates Foundation’s leader on postsecondary data and measurement, expects more specific recommendations for this national framework to be out by the spring. In the meantime, she encourages higher education administrators to put a number of the metrics to use right away. While institutions won’t have the benefits of benchmark data to compare their students’ performance to student performance elsewhere, there is much that institutions can do on their own campuses. And, in many cases, the data already exists.

Engle highlights Georgia State University as an oft-cited example of good use of data, and one worth talking about. Georgia State had a good rate of students returning for their second years, but a more detailed look at the progression data showed that many of the students coming back did not have enough credits to be considered sophomores.

“They uncovered a silent retention problem,” Engle said.

Another example is Tennessee, which, through its work with Complete College America, has seen striking success with corequisite remediation models, expanding a pilot program statewide following a close look at initial data.

“There are many things that higher education leaders can do now,” noted Daniel Greenstein, the foundation's director of education, postsecondary success, regarding the examples. And none of them require waiting until a new national data infrastructure is in place. 


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