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Report: Feds and States Need to Improve Data Efforts

Invest a penny of every federal dollar in evaluation. Appoint a chief evaluation officer. Fund programs based on post-graduation goals and publish employment outcomes by major. Create accurate graduation rates. Those are some of the recommendations proposed in two new reports from Results for America, a bipartisan nonprofit with a mission of persuading decision-makers in government to use data and evidence to address the biggest challenges.

One of the reports in the "Moneyball for Higher Education: Using Data and Evidence to Improve Student Outcomes" series addresses what can be done at the federal level and the other covers the state level. The two authors, each of whom worked on both reports, come from opposite sides of the aisle: James Kvaal was a former deputy director under Barack Obama, and John Bridgeland was former domestic policy director under George W. Bush.

Their proposals at both levels of government follow similar paths, to improve measures of student success, to build and use evidence of what works and help colleges act on that information, and to put resources behind student success.

For example, investing a penny of every federal dollar in evaluation would mean Congress should invest 1 percent of discretionary higher ed funding (outside of Pell and other student loan programs) in evaluating programs "to determine what works so that the other 99 percent is spent more effectively and efficiently." That would release about $47 million each year for evaluation purposes, including "randomized trials and new approaches." This isn't an entirely new idea for the federal government; K-12's Every Student Succeeds Act puts aside half a percent of funding to evaluation.

Appointing a chief evaluation officer, the federal report explained, would help the U.S. Department of Education improve its programs. A similar role has been designated at the U.S. Department of Labor, and the result, according to the authors, "ensures that policy decisions are informed by the best available evidence, helps senior leaders identify and close gaps in the most important knowledge, and supports efforts to strengthen the management of the agency by helping define and measure performance goals."

At the state level, the project recommended rewarding colleges based on post-graduation goals, whether that's counting the number of students who move into four-year colleges from two-year schools or who obtain jobs that earn above a threshold.

Another proposal for states: to publish employment outcomes by major. These could be calculated, the state report suggested, by matching college enrollment records with state unemployment insurance records and publishing the data at an aggregated level to protect student privacy. A number of states, including Florida, have already begun doing this.

The notion of creating accurate graduation rates appears at the top of the list of recommendations for both the feds and states. As the federal report urged, Congress needs to authorize the Department of Ed "to collect the data it needs to calculate better graduation rates, at lower administrative costs to colleges and subject to strict privacy protections." Right now, the report asserted, "our current system for tracking student graduation is unnecessarily complicated, redundant, confusing and a burden on institutions." At the same time, it "fails to provide insight into which groups of students are unlikely to graduate and how we might address their challenges."

States have a parallel responsibility, the state report emphasized. States ought to require their colleges and universities "to work together to match enrollment records," in order to track "key measures like the state's overall graduation rate, how well community colleges are preparing students for four-year degrees, and how well universities serve incoming transfer students."

"As a Democrat and a Republican, the authors of this report may not agree on everything, but we both believe that the strategic use of data and evidence can help many more college students succeed," Bridgeland and Kvaal wrote in an executive summary. "Achieving this goal also helps to promote upward mobility, strengthen the middle class, foster shared economic growth and enable Americans of all backgrounds to understand and cooperate with one another to solve our toughest public challenges."

Both reports, as well as a slide presentation, are openly available on the Results for America website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

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