Newly Released Federal Student Outcomes Data Show More Detail, Provide Better Information, and Increase Transparency in Higher Education

Published Oct 12, 2017

by: Eleanor Eckerson Peters

New publicly available data on student outcomes, collected by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) for the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), tell a more nuanced story and do a better job of counting all students than in years past.

Data from the new Outcome Measures (OM) survey go beyond the traditional first-time, full-time (FTFT) cohort of the Graduation Rates (GR) survey, and the latest GR data are further disaggregated by whether students received a federal Pell Grant—a widely used proxy for low-income status. Both sets of new data are now fully incorporated into NCES’ IPEDS Data Center and College Navigator, allowing PostsecData and the public the opportunity to explore student outcomes nationwide in more detail than ever before.

This first set of Outcome Measures data includes six- and eight-year completion rates for four discrete groups of students:

  • First-time, full-time
  • First-time, part-time
  • Non-first-time, full-time
  • Non-first-time, part-time

By contrast, the GR survey only tracks the first group—students who are enrolling in college for the first time and attending college full-time. Counting the outcomes of all students can make a big difference. As Figure 1 illustrates, 59.2 percent of “traditional” FTFT bachelor’s degree-seeking students earned a bachelor’s degree within 150 percent of “normal time” (six years). That number increased to 61.6 percent within 200 percent (eight years). However, the OM data—which include non-bachelor’s degree-seeking students and count any credential a student earns, not just a bachelor’s degree—show how completion outcomes at the six- and eight-year marks vary for non-first-time and part-time students. The 150 percent graduation rate and six-year outcome measures for FTFT students are fairly similar. The same can be said for 200 percent graduation rates and eight-year outcomes for FTFT students. However, outcomes are not as good for first-time, part-time students, with only 20.3 percent earning a credential within eight years. Among the non-first-time cohorts—students who either transferred directly from another institution or returned to college after a hiatus—full-time students’ outcomes are comparable to their first-time peers, while more than 40 percent of part-time transfer students completed within eight years.

The fact that OM measures at the six- and eight-year marks, instead of measuring against “normal time” according to credential sought, also means that two-year colleges now have a six-year benchmark as well. Though this is not a perfect apples-to-apples comparison to what a 300 percent metric might look like in GR, it does produce interesting results: While less than 13 percent of FTFT students at a single two-year college earn a two-year credential within 200 percent of “normal time” according to GR (i.e., within four years), 36.5 percent of FTFT students at the same two-year college earned a credential within six years according to OM (see Figure 2).

Finally, the addition of a Pell Grant recipient sub-cohort to the GR data helps to illuminate socioeconomic inequities in higher education. This new release shows why Pell recipient data are so vital to examining how well colleges serve low-income students. As Figure 3 indicates, graduation rates differ between the neediest Pell recipients (41.2 percent), students who do not receive a Pell Grant but do receive a subsidized Stafford Loan (59.6 percent), and students who do not demonstrate enough financial need to participate in either of these federal aid programs (55.4 percent).

All of these new insights support the need for better postsecondary data, in order to help institutions and policymakers identify and address gaps in student success among different types of students, and to help students and families make informed decisions about which colleges to attend and support. However, these data cannot answer questions like:

  • Are there racial/ethnic or gender gaps in transfer rates or completion outcomes for part-time and transfer students?
  • What type of institutions to students transfer to?
  • Do students complete credentials after they transfer?

A federal student-level data network could produce the metrics to answer these and other critical policy questions. On October 18, IHEP will be releasing A Blueprint for Better Information: Recommendations for a Federal Postsecondary Student-Level Data Network. This report details the technical, operational, and governance considerations for creating a secure, privacy-protected student-level data network.