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It’s Not Whether. It’s How. A Diverse Array of Institutional Stakeholders Weigh In To Ensure a Smooth Implementation of a Student-Level Data Network

Experts say a modernized postsecondary data system will help stakeholders make informed decisions on maximizing return on investment of higher education.

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. — Last year, amidst growing momentum toward building a student-level data network (SLDN), RTI International (RTI) and the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP) began a series of conversations to understand how to develop a modernized SLDN and ensure stakeholders – from students and families to institutions and lawmakers – can make informed decisions that maximize our collective return on investment in higher education. Acting in an independent capacity, RTI, a nonprofit research institute, and IHEP, leader of the Postsecondary Data Collaborative, hosted a second convening last fall and have released the brief outlining that discussion today.

Implementing a Student-Level Data Network (Part II): Insights from Institutional Representatives shares perspectives from 12 experts from diverse institutional backgrounds, including public two-year, private nonprofit four-year, and private for-profit four-year institutions, as well as individuals who work in public system and association offices. Panelists brought their years of experience in institutional research (IR) and data reporting, and their knowledge of the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) to bear on topics the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) would need to address in the construction and implementation of a SLDN, if federal legislation calling for such changes, like the College Transparency Act or College Affordability Act were to become law.

“Since the conceptualization and implementation of the SLDN will be a significant undertaking for both NCES and institutions if legislation is passed, it is important to begin thinking critically about the implementation now,” said Josh Pretlow, senior education research analyst at RTI. “Properly designed, the SLDN will utilize data currently collected by institutions and the federal government to securely provide stakeholders access to information they do not currently have. In doing so, the data network has the potential to increase transparency and promote informed decision-making by students, families, and policymakers at all levels.”

The representatives reflected on example file layouts and data collection models with an eye to what data are available for all students, when data are available for reporting, and other key factors that could streamline data submission or reduce reporting burdens. The discussion centered on the primary goal of providing a core set of consistent, institution- and program-level metrics that inform policymakers, institutions, and students alike in order to support student success and educational equity.

“We cannot continue to ask students – and their families – to make one of the largest and most important investments of their lives without clearer information about what their time and money will yield,” said Mamie Voight, IHEP’s Senior Vice President. “It’s 2021 and we have information at our fingertips about major decisions like buying a home or car, yet students pursuing higher education cannot answer key questions about student access, progress, completion, prices, and outcomes. Now is the time to ensure prospective students can make informed choices, institutional leaders can accurately assess their campus practices, and state and federal policymakers can legislate based on evidence. 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 the bipartisan, bicameral College Transparency Act (CTA) in the House and Senate gained impressive support, with the CTA gaining 234 cosponsors in the House and 37 cosponsors in the Senate. The bills included legislative language charging NCES with establishing a SLDN.

Implementing a Student-Level Data Network (Part II): Insights from Institutional Representatives outlines feedback from representatives on file layouts and raises key considerations regarding enrollment and completions; financial aid; demographics; and timing and frequency of collection. The brief also highlights several cross-cutting findings and outlines next steps to meeting legislative requirements.

RTI and IHEP aim to continue to convene experts in the months ahead to include additional perspectives, including from financial aid administrators and state data system managers.

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 to 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.