EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the first entry in a new RealClearPolicy series, "Educating for Success," on new ideas in education.
Commuting via public transportation in Washington, D.C. is not always fun. In fact, there’s an entire Twitter handle dedicated to helping the DC Metro “unsuck.” But as frustrating as it may be, there are numerous options for how to best get to work. I can take the Metro, the bus, a cab, Uber, Lyft, bike, or even a scooter. And the best part of it all is that I can easily look up real-time information to game out which of these options will get me to work for the least amount of money and shortest amount of time.
The truth is I have more information about commuting to work than what millions of American students and families have when it comes to making one of the biggest financial investments of their lives: where to go to college. A federal ban on student level data written into the 2008 reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA) prevents policymakers, researchers, and consumers from getting a full picture of student outcomes at colleges across the country.
As a result, most federal data only shows outcomes for the average or median student, obscuring whether a college is serving various student populations well. In turn, students are receiving half-baked information about whether or not colleges are graduating all of their students on time or equipping them with the skills they need to secure well-paying jobs and pay back their loans.
But unlike my ability to commute to work on various modes of transportation (that will all ultimately get to my office building in the timeliest fashion possible), unknowingly selecting a school with abysmal graduation rates can have mammoth consequences on a student’s life. We know that students who start college but don’t finish earn nearly $500,000 less over the course of their lifetimes and are three times as likely to default on their loans. And we know that college completion rates look even worse for low-income students and students of color who require the economic mobility of a college degree the most. Today, fewer than 15 percent of low-income students get a four-year degree, while more than 6 in 10 wealthy students do. In addition, Black and Hispanic adults are almost half as likely to get a postsecondary degree than their White peers.
That’s why a handful of school districts and charter networks from around the country have realized that in order to close long-standing equity gaps, it’s no longer enough to help students get to college, but much more important to help them get through college. To do this, K–12 networks are finding innovative ways to circumnavigate the federal restrictions on student level data to give their students targeted information about which colleges are most likely to help them succeed.
Take for example the University of Chicago’s To&Through Project. After realizing over a decade ago that Chicago Public School (CPS) students were as likely to drop out of college as they were to graduate, the district entered into a one-of-a-kind data-sharing agreement with The Consortium at the University of Chicago to better understand college enrollment and attainment patterns for students across CPS. This access to student-level data allowed college counselors to see the colleges and universities CPS students were selecting and the long-term implications of those choices.
For example, disaggregated data at CPS’ Nicolas Senn High School found that only 49 percent of their non-International Baccalaureate (IB) students were enrolling in college compared to 76 percent of their IB peers, and that when they did, they were selecting schools that they were academically overqualified to attend. As a result, Senn made the decision to provide all students at the school with greater access to rigorous courses and opportunities to gain exposure to more selective four-year schools. In just two years, Senn saw its college enrollment rate across the board increase by 20 percentage points, including having a greater number of graduating seniors enrolling in more competitive schools.
Similar efforts to use data to help students make better college choices are also underway in the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) and the KIPP Charter School Network. Because of DC’s unique governance structure, DCPS is able to use National Student Clearinghouse (NSC) data to identify exactly which colleges and universities are actually helping DCPS students graduate—and help students avoid those that don’t. Specifically, the “Smart College Choices” Initiative identifies which colleges have a graduation rate below 40 percent for DCPS students and prohibits those schools from attending DCPS-sponsored college fairs or tours.
Likewise, NSC data and an extensive alumni tracking system has allowed KIPP counselors from across the network to match students with schools that are the most likely to help them graduate within 4-6 years. These “KIPP Through College” counselors start working with students as early as middle school, and stay connected throughout their alumni’s entire college career. And these efforts are starting to pay off. Students from KIPP and other charter school networks graduate from college at a rate that’s three to five times higher than the national average. In KIPP’s New York region alone, the college completion rate has jumped 13 percentage points since 2011.
It’s clear that each of these examples are having outsized effects on the student populations they serve, sharply increasing college completion rates and closing key equity gaps that exist across higher education today. But the ability to work robustly with disaggregated data shouldn’t just exist for students lucky enough to attend schools in innovative school district or charter networks that have special circumstances to make this kind of work possible. Congress has a real opportunity to democratize higher ed data for all by overturning its ban on student level data. Luckily, bipartisan bills like The College Transparency Act have laid the groundwork to make these kinds of efforts a reality for the millions of students looking to better their lives.
Because at the end of the day, I shouldn’t have better information at my fingertips to make it to work than a student has to make it through college. I would easily trade away five minutes on my commute to ensure more students graduate with the degrees they need to earn a stable and secure life.
Tamara Hiler is the Deputy Director of Education at Third Way, a center-left think tank in Washington, DC. You can find her on Twitter at @TamaraHiler.