Consumers, policymakers, and researchers all need user-friendly access to meaningful financial aid data – data that can deepen our understanding of important issues and inform decision-making at all levels. A recent report from the National Postsecondary Education Cooperative (NPEC) provides important, actionable suggestions for how to improve federal data on this topic.
The report presents the findings and recommendations of NPEC’s Working Group on Financial Aid Data, chaired by Matthew Reed of TICAS. The group brought together leading financial aid researchers and practitioners as well as representatives of all sectors of higher education and the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).
Here’s the TICAS take on some particularly important suggestions:
Adopt common identifiers for colleges across all data sets. Different agencies within the U.S. Department of Education use different codes used to identify colleges and branch campuses. In addition, some track data for each campus, while others group related campuses together. This makes it difficult to bring together data on financial aid, enrollment, and student success from different sources to look at a variety of student outcomes at the college level. It can also lead to incomplete or misleading information for consumers. For example, a student using the FAFSA to apply for aid at the University of Phoenix will only see tuition and fees, net price, and graduation rates for one specific campus in Arizona, where less than two percent of the university’s students attend. Until common identifiers are established, the Department should provide tools to help researchers connect the different data sets.
Collect and disseminate college-level data on debt at graduation and private (non-federal) loans. As student debt levels continue to rise, both consumers and policymakers need timely information about student borrowing. Prospective students should be able to see average debt at graduation for whatever colleges they are considering, not just those that happen to report it voluntarily. In addition, borrowers and colleges should be able to see all of a student’s loans, federal and private, in one place.
As TICAS has long recommended, the NPEC report suggests that the Department make incremental changes its annual survey of colleges to collect information on cumulative debt and on private loan borrowing for all undergraduates. We have also long called for the Department to track private as well as federal student loans in its student loan database, which is ultimately the best way to provide accurate and comprehensive data on these topics. TICAS continues to urge the Department of Education to make these short-term and long-term changes, including working with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) to ensure the collection of comprehensive private loan data from lenders.
Provide more detailed loan volume data. Currently, the available college-level data on federal loan usage makes it very difficult to estimate the number of undergraduates using federal student loans at each college, their use of unsubsidized versus subsidized Stafford loans, or the average amount they borrowed. As the report recommends, providing separate figures for undergraduate and graduate students, as well as for all Stafford recipients, would paint a much clearer picture of federal loan borrowing patterns.
Improve access to and analysis of data already in the federal student loan database. The Department’s student loan database contains a wealth of information about financial aid, but it is currently underutilized. The legislation authorizing this database directs the Department to use it in part for research and policy analysis, but it has only done so on a very limited basis. The report recommends increased collaboration between the operational and analytical agencies within the Department so that more data are analyzed and made publicly available, enhancing understanding of student borrowing patterns and informing better decision-making at all levels.
We encourage those interested in financial aid data and trends to read the report and share any feedback with Archie Cubarrubia of the Department of Education.
For examples of existing data on financial aid as well as other affordability and diversity information at the college, state, and national levels, visit College InSight.