How to Find Data that Help Improve Student Outcomes

July 2015

As communities work to improve postsecondary attainment, they often encounter a host of questions about which data are available to help them in their efforts: Which data have been collected on postsecondary students and institutions? What is the scope of the data collected? What data measures should be used to benchmark progress? Additionally, it is often difficult to find data from a few specific sources that cover the entire student experience along the attainment pipeline from K-12 to postcollege outcomes. And the data we can find often do not tell us enough about the experiences of underserved students.

This chapter offers guidance on some of these questions and helps community stakeholders identify the critical questions that must be asked in order to determine which indicators and data would best suit their efforts. Stakeholders and decision-makers must have access to data at all points along the attainment pipeline: college readiness, enrollment, persistence, completion, and post-college outcomes. Data need to be disaggregated by key demographics—which will vary by the aims of each local initiative—in order to target resources and support toward closing attainment gaps. Communities must also learn how to put data into context, which includes benchmarking their data against peer communities, the state, or the nation; tracking progress over time; monitoring gaps between population; and calculating the return on investment as communities consider how best to allocate time and money to see the greatest outcomes.

To that end, this chapter begins with an infographic that not only identifies critical questions to ask about student outcomes along the attainment pipeline, but also lists the most common indicators that help us answer them.

Next, a selection of data source fact sheets allows you to begin mapping the data landscape and tells you where to find the data you need. The Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), National Student Clearinghouse (NSC), and the National Student Loan Data System (NSLDS) are three large, national data systems that collect a wealth of information on postsecondary students and institutions. Access to Success and Complete College America are two examples of voluntary data initiatives that collect data to help postsecondary institutions improve student outcomes, inform policy, and identify best practices.

Datasets are very informative, but each has its own set of limitations. For example, in IPEDS, graduation rates currently reflect only first-time, full-time students and not transfer or part-time students; institutions that report to National Student Clearinghouse may choose not to report on certain indicators, like race/ethnicity and degree-seeking status; and NSLDS does not disaggregate its data by race/ethnicity. It is important to keep in mind what every dataset can and cannot provide.

You can find additional fact sheets on over a dozen other voluntary data initiatives at the website for the Postsecondary Data Collaborative (PostsecData), a new IHEP initiative that advocates for high-quality postsecondary education data. Its tools and analyses can also help point you to the most relevant initiatives for your work based on the geographic areas and data measures you want to know about, or the level of information that each initiative collects and publishes.

For more information on PostsecData, please visit http://www.

Finally, this chapter ends with a list of additional resources where you can find more information on how to locate data sources, examples of data tools, and how to best meet your data needs.


Fact Sheet: IPEDS

Fact Sheet: National Student Clearinghouse

Fact Sheet: National Student Loan Data System

Fact Sheet: Access to Success

Fact Sheet: Complete College America

Additional Resources

Using and Sharing Data to Improve Postsecondary Success (2012: National League of Cities)

This municipal action guide serves as a roadmap for gathering, using, and sharing data on students’ postsecondary outcomes in a community context. It provides an overview of useful data resources and details key steps, such as conducting inventories of local data capacity, sharing data, conducting “loss point” analyses along the education pipeline, determining baseline measures, setting goals, and reporting progress.

Conducting a Scan of Local Efforts to Promote Postsecondary Success (2012: National League of Cities)

This guide provides an in-depth look at the important information-gathering work that must precede a comprehensive postsecondary success initiative. City leaders can conduct a scan of local postsecondary success efforts to understand what supports are available to students across the education pipeline.

Data for Action 2014 (2014: Data Quality Campaign)

The Data Quality Campaign shares the results of their most recent annual survey of states on their 10 State Actions to Ensure Effective Data Use. This report also describes other key emerging K-12 data issues and provides numerous examples of promising practices of data use in the field. It features a table of states that have completed important steps such as linking K-12 data systems with other sstems, building state data repositories, and creating progress reports with student-level data.

Postsecondary Data Resource List (2015: Institute for Higher Education Policy)

IHEP’s Postsecondary Data Collaborative, or PostsecData, has compiled an extensive list of resources that will be of use to anyone interested in accessing or better understanding postsecondary data. Users can search within the resource list for consumer information tools and databases and find many examples from around the country.

College Results Online (The Education Trust)

This interactive web tool was designed to provide policymakers, school counselors, parents, students, and others with information aboutcollegegraduationrates,includingratesforunderserved students, at nearly any four-year college or university in the country. Data can be disaggregated easily for underserved students, revealing gaps in graduation rates while also showing that these gaps are neither present at every institution nor inevitable. Users can compare colleges as well as see changes for a particular college over time.

American Community Survey (ACS) (U.S. Census Bureau)

Sponsored by the U.S. Census Bureau, this annual survey of approximately 3.5 million households provides a wide range of information on the U.S. population, including data on demographics, educational attainment, occupation, earnings, and industries of employment. These data can be used by local governments and other parties to view population, education, and workforce information in their area of interest and can be disaggregated at the regional, state, county, city, and censustract level.