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Gates Foundation Pushes More Data Tracking in Higher Ed, Linking Outcomes to Funding

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is once again calling for change in higher education. Among other things, the politically influential Gates Foundation is now pushing for reforms that are reminiscent in some ways of the K-12 reforms the organization has forwarded in recent years, including all-encompassing tracking of student outcome data and connecting such data to institutional funding.

Data Collection, Funding, Financial Aid

According to the foundation's latest report on its priorities for post-secondary education, one of its major priorities in the coming years will be to "[s]upport the development of a comprehensive national data infrastructure that enables the secure and consistent collection and reporting of key performance metrics for all students in all institutions. These data are essential for supporting the change needed to close persistent attainment gaps and produce an educated and diverse workforce with career-relevant credentials for the 21st century."

The report put such data collection into the context of institutional value: "In this era of escalating costs and uncertain outcomes, it is important that prospective students, policymakers, and the public have answers to commonsense questions about whether and which colleges offer value: a quality education at an affordable price. Unfortunately, these stakeholders still lack answers to critical questions about how — and how well — students are moving into and through higher education."

And under the Gates vision, those "critical questions" of "value" carry high-stakes implications for educational institutions, as "funding models" would be tied to measures like employment and graduation rates.

The report lamented: "Historically, most funding policies have provided strong incentives for enrollment but weak to no incentives for persistence, graduation or employment. While many states have attempted over the years to link funding to performance on input and outcome measures, early performance funding models suffered from shortcomings such as inappropriate measures, minimal funding tied to performance, and a lack of attention to institutional capacity and variations in institutional mission and student population. Similar challenges apply to federal financial aid programs that rely on metrics designed for students, institutions, and missions from a different era, such as cohort default rates and satisfactory academic progress."

Gates called for the federal government to "[r]aise awareness and knowledge on the issue of embedding financial incentives in existing and new funding streams with an eye toward improving outcomes, while defining minimal levels of institutional performance and mitigating unintended consequences."

At the state level, the push is more aggressive, calling on state governments to change their "funding models" to " align with the goal of increasing attainment of high-quality credentials...." Further, the report argued agencies should "[e]valuate states adopting new outcome-based funding models to gauge impact on student outcomes and institutional behavior, broadly sharing the insights gained."

Data collection and sharing is, of course, already widespread in higher education. But the foundation is looking to sidestep existing cooperative efforts and support the creation of a national data exchange and to "[c]ontinue to develop robust state data systems that connect disparate higher education systems within and across states, including non-public institutions, and improve linkages between higher education, K-12 and workforce data to facilitate the timely and safe exchange of data for decision-making by educators and policymakers."

The foundation also provided recommendations for streamlining financial aid and reducing the burden on students, particularly members of demographics groups that may have difficulty navigating existing processes.

'Student-Centered Pathways'

The Gates Foundation also addressed remediation and technology-based education, advisement and remediation in its report.

Joining in on a common refrain among education reformers of late, the foundation argued for dumping traditional remediation "models" and instead adopting "[n]ewer approaches, such as co-requisite and accelerated remediation," which, the foundation argued, "are showing promising results."

The organization is also looking to rejigger some privacy laws so that student data can be shared across "financial aid, advising, and other types of student services. This will enable any advisor or counselor in contact with a student to access a holistic picture of the student's needs and supports while preserving their privacy rights."

Finally, the report argued for removing "barriers" to offering online and blended learning on a larger scale.

"A growing body of evidence demonstrates that new technologies can tailor learning at an unprecedented scale," the report noted. "Grantee experience and field research indicates that when students take high-quality blended courses (i.e., a combination of in-class and online courses), they can master the same amount of content in less time."

The report cited the the State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement (SARA) as an "important policy lever to spread implementation of quality digital learning."

Further details can be found in the Postsecondary Success Advocacy Priorities report.

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