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Envisioning a federal student-level data network: Fourth brief in series explores potential design options

Higher education experts delve into three design and implementation models for an inclusive and streamlined data system 

WASHINGTON, D.C. — As the 118th Congress gets underway, policymakers across the political spectrum can find common ground when it comes to addressing data limitations in higher education. By leveraging data available at institutions and federal agencies, a federal student-level data network (SLDN) would ensure that policymaking is grounded in evidence by providing robust and representative data to answer critical questions about students’ postsecondary outcomes.

While proposed legislation such as the bipartisan College Transparency Act (CTA) and the College Affordability Act include detail on the data elements, data coverage, agencies responsible for data collection, and advisory body, they are not prescriptive on the SLDN design and nuances of implementation. To create a knowledge base for SLDN implementation, RTI International (RTI), a nonprofit research institute, partnered with the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP) to host a series of forums to explore data considerations and system design.

A new brief recently released shares lessons learned from the fourth gathering of perspectives from across the field of higher education. Implementing a Student-Level Data Network (Part IV): Exploring Design Options outlines high-level conceptual plans regarding the design and implementation of a federal SLDN. To help ensure that the system meets its intended promise, three teams of experts developed working papers that further articulated the details of each SLDN design model (included in the Appendix of the brief). By deliberately engaging experts with a range of perspectives and knowledge, RTI and IHEP hoped to identify potential pain points and solutions related to data submission, data governance, information security, and data usage. Through the considerations presented in the designs and robust discussion at the forum, the authors examine how a well-implemented SLDN could improve data collection and reduce burden on institutions.

“Improving our postsecondary data system through a federal student-level data network, in whatever form it takes, provides an opportunity to ensure we count all students and all outcomes,” said Amanda Janice Roberson, IHEP’s Senior Director of Strategic Engagement, Planning, and Operations. “An absence of representative data means that we leave important questions about student enrollment, persistence, completion, and outcomes unanswered for students and policymakers alike.”

The presenters also explored opportunities to reduce institutional burden and leverage existing data collections. One approach discussed explored how the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) could partner with state-level systems, which already collect postsecondary data, to streamline the process and reduce the workload for institutions and NCES. Additionally, experts considered a hybrid model, where institutions located in states with robust student-level data systems have their data reported by the state, while other institutions report data to the federal system directly. 

“To create buy-in for the system and improve data quality, a platform wherein institutions can access and examine data that they upload to the federal SLDN is an important feature of each model,” said James Isaac, senior research education analyst at RTI. “The goal of these forums and any next steps is to give voice to ideas and concepts that could contribute to the design and development of the system and to further support the SLDN’s stated goal of reducing burden on institutions and generating improved data that are useful to institutions, researchers, and students.”

Once legislation passes, implementing an SLDN will be a major yet necessary undertaking, and the findings in the latest brief may help NCES to more readily build the data network to securely provide stakeholders access to aggregate information they do not currently have. The data network has the potential to promote informed decision-making by students, families, and policymakers at all levels, ultimately improving postsecondary outcomes and maximizing the collective return on investment in higher education.

The findings in this brief align with the series of convenings that RTI and IHEP have hosted over the past two years with experts across the field of higher education to support the modernization of the nation’s postsecondary data system. To date, recommendations from those convenings have addressed measures and underlying data elements, institutional views on data submission, and financial aid data. Also, IHEP separately explored the use of the common education data standards (CEDS) to build an SLDN.

RTI and IHEP plan to continue to engage experts and gather intelligence, supporting the brainstorming around SLDN design in preparation for future passage of the CTA or a similar bill creating an SLDN.

View the latest brief here: Implementing a Student-Level Data Network (Part IV): Exploring Design Options

Learn more about how we are advising the modernization of postsecondary data infrastructures

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 www.rti.org.