Blog Post | November 8, 2013

Want better data? Speak up now!

Much of the information we have on college costs, financial aid, enrollment, and completion comes from the U.S. Department of Education’s annual surveys of colleges, collectively called IPEDS. Researchers and policymakers rely heavily on IPEDS data, and the Department’s own consumer tools like College Navigator and College Scorecards do, too.

As important as IPEDS is, the data collected are far from perfect and opportunities to improve IPEDS as a whole are few and far between. But there is one such opportunity now – the federal government is asking the public for comments on how to improve IPEDS for the next three years. Here are some of our biggest asks:

  • Collect data on cumulative debt at graduation for completers of undergraduate certificates, associate’s degrees, and bachelor’s degrees. The only currently available data on cumulative debt by institution are voluntarily reported, and as a result are incomplete. For example, the vast majority of for-profit colleges choose not to report these data. Better data could immediately be put to use in consumer tools like the College Scorecard and the President’s proposed rating system.
  • Collect graduation rates for Pell Grant recipients. This should be an easy ask of colleges since they’re already required by law to calculate graduation rates for Pell Grant recipients for the purposes of disclosure, and some are already reporting these rates voluntarily to U.S. News. But many colleges don’t comply with this disclosure requirement, and, even for those that do, there’s no easy way for consumers, researchers, journalists, or policymakers to find colleges’ Pell graduation rates across the board because the rates aren’t reported via IPEDS. Reporting the rates would create no extra burden on colleges and would serve as a check on noncompliant schools.
  • Collect graduation rates for part-time and non-first-time students immediatelyCurrently available graduation rates include only first-time students who enroll full time, leaving out substantial shares of entering students. The Department is finally poised to begin collecting graduation rates for part-time and non-first-time students, too, but has recently proposed delaying their collection until 2015-16. This delay is unnecessary.
  • Collect data on veterans’ outcomes. IPEDS already includes questions on veterans’ enrollment and access to services, so collecting information on these students’ outcomes – in the same way other students’ outcomes are tracked – is reasonable and the fastest way to obtain data on veteran students’ outcomes.
  • Collect better data on for-profit colleges’ spending. The Department’s proposed changes to IPEDS already include increasing the level of detail in for-profit colleges’ reporting of revenues, expenses, assets, and liabilities, as recommended by a technical review panel focused on improving the finance survey for for-profit colleges. While this represents a good first step, IPEDS should also collect data on expenditures for recruiting, advertising, and marketing.
  • Make it easier to combine IPEDS data with other federal data. The Department provides important data about colleges outside of IPEDS (such as cohort default rates, or CDRs). However, it is difficult to view IPEDS data side-by-side with data from other federal sources that use a different system for identifying colleges. Adopting common identifiers for colleges across all data sets would address this problem. In the interim, the Department should provide tools that help users combine these data sets, for both research and consumer information purposes.

TICAS outlined these and other recommended changes in the first and second rounds of comments to improve IPEDS collection. So far, the Department’s responses to these suggestions have focused primarily on the additional burden they would impose on colleges. In some cases – like the Pell graduation rate reporting, discussed above – this is simply not true. But in the cases where new reporting requirements might in fact increase burden, why not offset the burden by eliminating reporting requirements that are duplicative or have become obsolete?

The Department needs to hear from others that these changes to IPEDS are important and urgently needed. The proposed IPEDS collection is out for comment for the third time, with comments due November 14, 2013 at