Consensus Builds on Need for High-Quality Postsecondary Data: A Review of Comments on Senate HELP Committee White Paper on Consumer Information

Published Jun 01, 2015

by: Amanda Janice Roberson

A diverse array of stakeholders have expressed an unmistakable hunger for more comprehensive, higher-quality data on our nation’s postsecondary system. In response to the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee’s white paper on consumer information, organizations repeatedly called for better data on a variety of measures, including student progression and completion especially for post-traditional, part-time and transfer students, Pell Grant recipients, and those attending community colleges. They also frequently cited the need for data on workforce outcomes, including job attainment and earnings. Experts agree that data collected should accurately represent 21st century students and their pathways through and success after higher education.

While not all of the comments submitted to the Committee have been made public, we found and compiled thirteen responses representing over 50 organizations, including: American Association of Community Colleges and Association of Community College Trustees; American Association of State Colleges and Universities and Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities; Association of Big Ten Students; American Council on Education and other associations; Center for Law and Social Policy; Education Finance Council; National Association for College Admission Counseling; National Association of State Directors of Career Technical Education Consortium and Association for Career and Technical Education; National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators; National College Access Network; New America; Postsecondary Data Collaborative (PostsecData); and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.*

Notably, ten letters were either supportive of a student unit record data system (SURDS), believing it to be a viable and preferable federal data collection option, or at least suggested it be debated as part of reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. As noted in several letters, this type of system could lessen the burden on institutions by streamlining the data collection process and could potentially work alongside and in conjunction with existing state longitudinal data systems (SLDS). While existing data systems were not created for the purpose of collecting or reporting all of the types of data now required, a SURDS could be used to better answer critical education policy questions.

In addition to overarching calls for better data and frequent mention of a SURDS, several other themes emerged in these letters, including (see the attached PDF for the full table with more themes and details):

  • Leverage existing federal data and report aggregate results: ten authors called for linking various federal data sources, such as the Department of Veteran’s Affairs, Department of Defense, Social Security Administration, Internal Revenue Service, and various databases held by the Department of Education. These linkages could be used to answer outstanding questions around workforce outcomes, student loan debt, and success of specific student groups.
  • Recognize federal, state, institutional, and research actors as key data users: Over half of letters noted that while data use for federal and state policymakers, institutions, and consumers is vital, access to these data is also crucial for researchers in order to assist in policymaking, field research, and continuous improvement and innovation. Several letters also noted employers as key data stakeholders.
  • Maintain the Department of Education as data steward and promote methodological transparency: The letters expressed general consensus that the Department of Education should have the flexibility to respond to emerging trends and questions in the field while promoting transparency in federal data methodology.
  • Review, consolidate, and target federal consumer tools: With the focus of the consumer information white paper on how data can be better utilized to serve students and families, some organizations expressed interest in a single, consumer-tested portal or dashboard that could synthesize the relevant college choice information into a digestible and easily understood format.

Based on this review, general consensus holds that current data do not accurately represent today’s students, and inclusion of modified or additional metrics could assist students, institutions, state and federal policymakers, and researchers to better understand the changing landscape of higher education. Furthermore, organizations recommended ways to reimagine our postsecondary data systems to streamline collection, manage reporting burden, and ultimately provide higher quality data to meet today’s policy, practice, consumer, and research needs.

*Note if your organization submitted comments in response to the Senate HELP Committee’s letter on consumer information and would like us to publish them here, please send them to Amanda Janice at

Updated on June 10, 2015

View the PDF to see the full comparison matrix.