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Moving Beyond “Data-Rich but Information-Poor:” Experts Proactively Provide Insights to Build a Student-Level Data Network

Industry stakeholders collaborate to facilitate smooth implementation of a complete and congruent data system for postsecondary data across the United States.


Washington, DC (August 27, 2020) – There is steadily-growing consensus around a critical issue in our nation’s higher education system: the need to modernize our postsecondary data infrastructure. As bipartisan and bicameral momentum grows around building a Student-Level Data Network (SLDN), a group of experts is providing insights, posing key questions, and developing definitions to smooth implementation, reduce institutional burden, and ensure all stakeholders – from students and families to institutions and lawmakers – can make informed decisions that maximize our collective return on investment in higher education.

Recognizing that building the SLDN outlined in pending legislation will require the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) to make key decisions around design, construction, and implementation, two organizations, each with decades of experience in postsecondary data infrastructure and usage, have come together to support this critical undertaking. Acting in an independent capacity, RTI International (RTI), a nonprofit research institute, partnered with the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP), leader of the Postsecondary Data Collaborative, to convene a diverse array of stakeholders earlier this summer. Released today, Implementing a Student-Level Data Network: Advice from the Experts, shares the insights from that conversation with 15 experts from institutions, state systems, think tanks, and higher education associations.

"Thoughtful and deliberate implementation of the SLDN is critical to ensuring the system is useful to stakeholders and informative to students, while not adding undue burden to institutions,” said Erin Dunlop Velez, Senior Education Research Analyst at RTI International. “Through these efforts to get ahead of the legislation, we hope to inform NCES and the Postsecondary Student Data System Advisory Committee by providing a roadmap of the most pressing content issues to address.”

“Higher education – which is one of the largest investments of time and money that many Americans will make in their lifetimes – should be a pathway to individual opportunity and to closing equity gaps that have long existed but have been particularly and painfully obvious over the past several months,” said Michelle Asha Cooper, IHEP’s President. “Yet as an unprecedented fall semester gets underway, key questions about student access, progress, completion, prices, and outcomes remain unanswerable. We are encouraged by growing Congressional support for a well-designed federal student-level data network that will enable prospective students to make informed choices, institutional leaders to accurately assess their campus practices, and state and federal policymakers to legislate based on facts and data. We want to see that happen as smoothly, effectively, and promptly as possible.”

Pending federal legislation includes the College Affordability Act (CAA) and the College Transparency Act (CTA) in the U.S. House of Representatives, and a companion CTA bill in the U.S. Senate. These bills share similar language to create an SLDN and defer to NCES and its expertise to determine the precise structure, governance, technology, and data definitions, which would be determined in the implementation and regulatory processes. Implementing a Student-Level Data Network: Advice from the Experts outlines the data elements and definitional options needed to meet pending legislative requirements, maximize the quality and utility of the data, and minimize the burden on institutions. The data elements fit in five categories: enrollment and completion; financial aid; demographics; post-completion outcomes; and institutional characteristics. The brief also highlights areas that need further investigation and identifies the most pressing near-term topics in order to provide NCES and the legislatively-mandated Advisory Committee a foundation from which to start.

RTI International and IHEP will continue to convene experts in the months ahead to include additional perspectives, with a focus on reporting processes and frequency.

About the Institute for Higher Education Policy 
The Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit research and advocacy organization that is committed to promoting postsecondary access and success for all students. Established in 1993, IHEP develops innovative policy- and practice-oriented research to guide policymakers and education leaders and address our nation’s most pressing education challenges. Visit www.ihep.org to learn more about IHEP’s research, leadership, and experts.
About the 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.