Tying FAFSA Data to IPEDS: The Need for “Medium Data”

It is safe to say that I’m a fan of data in higher education. Students and their families, states, and the federal government spend a massive amount of money on higher education, yet we have relatively little data on outcomes other than graduation rates and student loan default rates for a small subset of students—those who started as first-time, full-time students. The federal government currently operates on what I call a “little data” model, with some rough institutional-level measures available through IPEDS. Some of these measures are also available through a slightly more student-friendly portal in the College Navigator website.

As is often the case, some states are light years ahead of the federal government regarding data collection and availability. Florida, Texas, and Ohio are often recognized as leaders in terms of higher education data availability, both in terms of collecting (deidentified) student-level data and tying together K-12, higher education, and workforce data outcomes. The Spellings Commission in 2006 did call for a student-level dataset at a national level, but Congress explicitly denied the Department of Education this authority in the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. Although there are sporadic movements toward “big data” at the national level, making this policy shift will require Congressional support and a substantial amount of resources.

Although I am willing to direct resources to a much more robust data system (after all, how can we determine funding priorities if we know so little about student outcomes?), a “medium data” approach could easily be enacted by using data sources already collected by colleges or the federal governemnt. I spent a fair amount of the morning today trying to find a fairly simple piece of data—the percentage of students at given colleges whose parent(s) did not complete college. The topic of first-generation students is important in policy circles, yet we have no systemic data on how large this group of students is at most colleges.

FAFSA data could be used to expand the number of IPEDS measures to include such topics as the following, in addition to first-generation status:

(1)    The percentage of students who file the FAFSA

(2)    Average/median family income

(3)    Percentage of students with zero EFC

(4)    Information on means-tested benefit receipt (such as food stamps or TANF)

(5)    Marital status

Of course, these measures would only include students who file the FAFSA—which would exclude many students who would not qualify for need-based aid, as well as some students who are unable to navigate through the complicated form. But these measures would provide a better idea of institutional diversity beyond racial/ethnic diversity and the percentage of students receiving Pell Grants and could be incorporated into IPEDS at a fairly low cost. Adding these FAFSA measures would help move IPEDS from “little data” to “medium data” and provide more useful measures to higher education stakeholders.

Author: Robert

I am an a professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville who studies higher education finance, accountability policies and practices, and student financial aid. All opinions expressed here are my own.

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