A Look at Legislative Proposals for a Federal Student Unit Record Data System

Published Nov 01, 2014

by: Mamie Voight 

While much of the data at the postsecondary level is collected through the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), there are limits to this public dataset. For example, IPEDS only collects data at the institution level and limits important metrics, such as graduation rates, to first-time, full-time students.

Several bills have been introduced to reform the nation’s federal data collection and reporting systems, despite a ban on the development of student unit record data systems that was enacted in the Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEOA) of 2008. Although none of these pieces of legislation saw a vote, they signal a need for a more efficient reporting mechanism and better data on postsecondary students.

The Student Right to Know Before You Go Act of 2012 (S. 2098, or Wyden-Rubio 1.0) leveraged the state longitudinal data system (SLDS) grant program. The legislation required institutions that receive Title IV funding to report student-level data to IPEDS via a SLDS or other entity and proposed storing the data in a central repository. Wyden-Rubio 1.0 also specified that no personally identifiable information be disclosed in the system and required all student components of the IPEDS data collection to be populated and calculated using individual-level data.

The Student Right to Know Before You Go Act of 2013 (S. 915, or Wyden-Rubio 2.0) took another tack to improving postsecondary data by striking the HEOA student unit record ban. It established a federal SURDS to populate student components in IPEDS and allowed the calculation and publication of metrics at the program and institution levels. The legislation called for streamlined reporting, allowing states to report student-level data on behalf of institutions.

The most recent effort to collect student-level data at the federal level is the Higher Education Affordability Act (HEAA), released by a retiring Senator Harkin  in November 2014. Rather than striking the ban on a unit record system, it created an exception that required SURDS data to replace IPEDS surveys and data elements. HEAA defined many similar data elements to Wyden-Rubio 2.0.

These three pieces of legislation replace current IPEDS reporting with student-level reporting with the goal of reducing institutional reporting burden.  Each required the Department of Education to seek input from institutions and other stakeholders before collecting new data measures, and allowed the data to be used for consumer information and policy evaluation.

While these pieces of legislation were not debated or voted on by the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) committee, they signal  that policymakers still feel there is a dearth of data on the American postsecondary system.

*See the updated version of this memo here.