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The Continued Need for a Nationwide Student-level Data Network: Third Brief in Series Outlines Financial Aid Data Considerations

Insights from financial aid experts address questions, expected obstacles, and opportunities in a modernized postsecondary student data system that maximizes utility for all communities while minimizing burden for institutions

WASHINGTON, DC – As institutions of higher education begin another semester challenged by the far-reaching impacts of an ongoing global pandemic, one thing is clear: students, families, and policymakers need robust, complete data for decision-making. Fortunately, support is broad across the country and across the political spectrum for a federal student-level data network (SLDN), which would streamline data reporting and answer key questions about students’ postsecondary outcomes. Anticipating the questions that would fall to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) to answer in building and maintaining an SLDN, RTI International (RTI), a nonprofit research institute, and the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP), leader of the Postsecondary Data Collaborative, are acting in an independent capacity to host a series of expert convenings to outline issues surrounding the SLDN’s construction and implementation.

A brief released today shares insights from the third gathering of perspectives from across the field of higher education. Implementing a Federal Student-Level Data Network (Part III): Insights from Financial Aid Experts is based on individual conversations with 20 experts and a convening of 9 expert panelists from diverse institutional backgrounds, all with extensive experience in financial aid data and policy. Today’s brief shares expert insights on data elements, institutional burden, timing of reporting, and use of data to address changes proposed if federal legislation, like the College Transparency Act or College Affordability Act were to become law.

“Our ongoing engagement with higher education experts has sparked valuable discussion and surfaced important considerations related to the design and implementation of a future SLDN,” said James Isaac, senior education research analyst at RTI. “Of particular interest are financial aid data, given that these data are complex, nuanced, and often subject to governance that complicates their use and accessibility. Understanding financial aid, at the federal, state, local, and institutional levels, is a critical component of a future SLDN, and central to improving access to higher education in the U.S.”

Modernizing the nation’s postsecondary data system would ensure community members – from students and families to institutions and lawmakers – can make informed decisions that maximize our collective return on investment in higher education. Panelists underscored that, at present, it would be easier to report data, especially financial aid data, for some groups of students than others given the stark disparity in data currently available for students who fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and those who do not. For example, colleges calculate individual cost of attendance (COA) estimates for FAFSA filers but may not do so for students who do not apply for financial aid.

“This is a matter of equity. While our current postsecondary data landscape includes high-quality data on a range of indicators, it also has worrisome gaps that leave many important questions from policymakers, institutions, and students unanswered,” said Amanda Janice Roberson, IHEP’s director of research and policy. “Major disparities in available data mean policymakers, institutional leaders, students, and families, cannot answer key questions about student access, progress, completion, prices, and outcomes. All community members should have the information they need to make data-informed, student-centered, equity-driven decisions – and a well-designed federal student-level data network will accomplish that.”  

In the last Congress, the College Affordability Act (CAA) was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives, and this Congress, the bipartisan, bicameral College Transparency Act (CTA) was reintroduced in April 2021 in the House and Senate. The bill has retained impressive support, with 70 cosponsors in the House and 31 cosponsors in the Senate. 

During the first forum RTI and IHEP hosted, participants discussed the specific measures and underlying data elements required by the legislation. The results of that forum—including a detailed table of proposed data elements to be collected in the SLDN—are summarized in “Implementing a Federal Student-Level Data Network: Advice from Experts.” In September 2020, the organizations hosted a second forum with a focus on institutions’ views regarding data submission to a SLDN, as set forth in “Implementing a Federal Student-Level Data Network (Part II): Insights from Institutional Representatives.”

RTI and IHEP plan on future collaboration to raise additional perspectives around implementation of an SLDN.

View the brief here: Implementing a Federal Student-Level Data Network (Part III): Insights from Financial Aid Experts

About the Institute for Higher Education Policy  
The Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit research, policy, and advocacy organization committed to promoting postsecondary access and success for all students, regardless of race, background, or circumstance. Established in 1993, IHEP provides timely, evidence-based, and student-centered research to inform policy decisions and address our nation’s most pressing education challenges. Visit www.ihep.org to learn more about IHEP’s research, leadership, and experts.

About RTI International
RTI International is an independent, nonprofit research institute dedicated to improving the human condition. Clients rely on us to answer questions that demand an objective and multidisciplinary approach — one that integrates expertise across the social and laboratory sciences, engineering and international development. We believe in the promise of science, and we are inspired every day to deliver on that promise for the good of people, communities and businesses around the world. For more information, visit https://www.rti.org