“Weighing the Options” Report Reviews Options to Improve the Postsecondary Data Infrastructure

Published Sep 14, 2015


We have reached a critical point in the pursuit of a national postsecondary data infrastructure that is capable of providing students, policymakers, and institutions with the information they need. These stakeholders are eager for answers to the most urgent questions about how today’s students access and succeed in higher education. However, higher education leaders clearly recognize that the data that are currently available are inadequate. While there are merits to our current data infrastructure, it lacks many of the components necessary to address the issues that matter most to students, policymakers, and institutional leaders.

In February 2015, IHEP and New America co-sponsored a full-day convening in which experts from across the country explored seven options for improving the national postsecondary data infrastructure:

  1. Creating a Federal Student Unit Record Data System (SURDS)
  2. Expanding, Leveraging, or Linking Government Data Systems
  3. Improving the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS)
  4. Linking to Workforce Data Systems
  5. Linking State Longitudinal Data Systems
  6. Expanding the National Center for Education Statistics’ (NCES’) Sample Studies
  7. Leveraging National Student Clearinghouse Data

Participants evaluated the seven data infrastructure options against key criteria deemed important for a national data solution. Through a series of surveys and discussions, two areas of consensus emerged:

  1. In spite of the political challenges, a student unit record data system is the best option for improving the national postsecondary data infrastructure. A student-level data system would be the most nimble and comprehensive way to meet various stakeholders’ data needs. However, the current ban on the creation of a federal SURDS compromises its political feasibility.
  2. In recognition of the political hurdles and the need for expediency, we must explore alternative solutions that could be executed without a unit record solution. None of these alternate approaches offer a system as comprehensive as a SURDS or could stand alone as a complete solution to meeting key stakeholders’ needs. But if applied in an integrative fashion, these improvements would more adequately address today’s critical student-centric data questions than would our existing infrastructure.  Critical components of each of the options could be used to create an effective integrated system in the absence of a SURDS.

View the PDF to read the full report.