Special Features

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  • 04.22.21

Building a Student-Level Data Network

  • by eAIR
Federal Student Level Data Network

eAIR caught up with Jamie Isaac, Center for Education Survey Design and Analysis, RTI International, and Mamie Voight, Interim President at Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP), to discuss the status and potential impacts of implementing a federal Student-Level Data Network (SLDN).

This conversation will be continued at the 2021 AIR Forum Virtual. Please join representatives from RTI International and IHEP as well as David Troutman, University of Texas System, and Bethany Miller, Macalester College, on Thursday, May 27, at 1:40 p.m. ET for their session, The Proposed Federal SLDN: We Want Your Input.

Why has a SLDN been proposed?

Mamie: There is a need to modernize our postsecondary data infrastructure. We have the data. If better connected, we could answer critical questions about outcomes—about postsecondary access, completion, post-college earnings. There’s a real hunger in this space to be able to answer these questions, particularly from an equity standpoint. Right now, we can’t disaggregate all the data we need to answer questions about how different students are faring.

A SLDN would reform our data systems and data infrastructure, enabling us to better answer those questions using existing data from the federal government and institutions. It would provide broader, easier access to information that folks need—that federal and state policy makers need, and that students need to be able to understand outcomes when making their college decisions.

How might a SLDN look different from the current system, particularly from a reporting perspective?

Mamie: Implementing a SLDN would require making some changes to how data are reported now. It would replace much of current IPEDS reporting. It would mean that institutions would need to report student-level data to NCES, and then NCES could use power of scale to calculate and report institution-level metrics. In other words, for many IPEDS metrics, institutions would no longer have to report institution-level data. That means institutions are going to need to adapt to a new reporting mechanism.

Institutions are also reporting to states and accreditors. We hope the reporting can be streamlined in a way that is similar to what is being reported to the federal government as part of CTA.

When this does begin, what will be important from an institutional perspective is to reduce the burden—so that the change leverages the types of reporting already in place.

How are your organizations involved with this project?

Jamie: RTI International, which is a nonprofit research institute, does a lot of work on behalf of the Department of Education. We want to help the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) understand any potential challenges and opportunities so they can build the best possible system from the outset. We want to make sure any system the government creates is as useful and valuable as possible—not another burden just for the sake of fulfilling the legislation.

Mamie: Both IHEP and RTI want to think about how implementation of a SLDN would roll out—to get a head start on implementation, identify ways to streamline that implementation, and reduce the burden of implementing a new system.

We want to understand the landscape and issues by leveraging those who are on ground, reporting these data. We want to tap their expertise and bring it to bear. It shouldn’t just be federal employees designing a system—people reporting the data should be involved so the system is high-quality and useful.

How could a SLDN become a reality?

Mamie: The concept has been included in various pieces of proposed legislation, including the College Affordability Act (CAA) in the U.S. House of Representatives and the bipartisan, bicameral College Transparency Act (CTA) . 

The CTA was just reintroduced in March by several of the same previous cosponsors, along with some additional cosponsors. In fact, it’s among the top 1% in terms of cosponsored bills in Congress. It’s been part of federal policy conversations this Congress, just as it was last Congress. Supporting passage of this bill is one of IHEP’s top legislative priorities.

At this point, it’s more a matter of when rather than whether it’s going to happen.

Any ideas on when it might happen?

Jamie: As Mamie said, this is likely to become reality at some point, although it’s not at all clear when that could happen. The proposed legislation specifies a period of four years between passage and implementation. Hopefully that provides adequate time for preparation. But we’re trying to get ahead of this. Our goal is to come together with other stakeholders to identify ways we can craft a meaningful data system right from the beginning. We’re trying to minimize the burden on institutions and maximize the system.

Mamie: The bill also requires an advisory committee be created with a broad array of constituents. So there will also be opportunities for the IR community to weigh in. The work we’ve done so far is really getting a head start. Now is the time to bring in experts from the field to begin to address some of the questions that could come up in implementation—before the bill goes into effect and rubber meets the road.

What has the reaction been from the field so far?

Mamie: Most of what we hear is strong support for this concept because of how disconnected our current systems are. Institutional researchers are eager. All participants [in input panels] have been really excited about making this work in the best way possible.

Has there been any resistance?

Jamie: This would be a big sea change. It would make IPEDS very different. There are generally challenges associated with adopting new systems, at least at the outset. It can feel like piling onto an already long list of things institutions have to comply with to provide aid. We know they’re stretched. So even if this ends up being a great system with benefits and improvements for all stakeholders, we understand there are challenges. That’s why we’re trying to be proactive, not just waiting for the field to be reactive.

Mamie: That’s exactly why it’s so important to get perspectives from leaders in the field—to build a better system and proactively deal with some of these technical challenges that may emerge any time you change a reporting scheme. They will help us think through the hurdles we’re going to need to wrestle with and get a head start thinking through some solutions. For example, what should reporting cadences be? How should we define some of these metrics and data elements? What are some nuances around IPEDS reporting we could potentially fix through a SLDN system?

How else can IR weigh in?

Mamie: Participate in the session at Forum to start getting up-to-speed on things likely to come down the pike. Help us think through the implications, challenges, and opportunities. For example:

  • How can such a system be as minimally burdensome as possible? What suggestions do you have for reducing inevitable burden?
  • What is the value an institution could get out of the system? How can it be designed in a way the institution could get something back?
  • Any other thoughts or concerns, questions, issues that should be addressed early on?

Jamie: For Forum, our goal is to communicate what we’ve done so far and also provide other avenues for stakeholders to react, provide feedback, etcetera. Any Forum attendee can provide comments and thoughts.

Additional Reading


AIR Forum Virtual

Related Session:

The Proposed Federal SLDN: We Want Your Input
Thursday, May 27, 1:40 p.m. ET


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