More Transparency in Higher Education Will Help Improve Student Outcomes

Every year, the U.S. Department of Education provides billions of dollars in Federal financial aid to help students enroll in college. Yet too many students—roughly two in five bachelor’s degree-seeking students—leave school with no degree, often leaving them with debt, no job, and a high risk of default. In recent years, the Department has made strides toward improving these odds, yet more work remains.

To identify the most promising ways to improve postsecondary outcomes, researchers and policymakers need transparency into the data collected from Federal Student Aid (FSA) programs. That’s why the Department has taken significant steps to ensure more and better data are available. And it’s why today, we are announcing additional efforts to support responsible data access and transparency of information about higher education, while supporting borrower privacy and data security.

  • Expanding Researcher Access to Student Aid Data: Researchers can provide critical insights about student loan repayment, including answering questions about the best ways to help struggling borrowers stay on track to repay their loans. Today, the Department is announcing a roadmap to support researchers in accessing appropriately protected student aid data for these kinds of studies. That includes partnering with the Federal Reserve Board through an Advancing Insights through Data pilot project to study student loan repayment plan selection and the relationships between income-driven repayment plans and outcomes like student loan defaults.We’re also working with researchers to better understand their needs and inform the creation of a privacy-protected, public-use microdata file from the National Student Loan Data System (NSLDS) that can facilitate valuable research and other studies of higher education. By October 2017, we plan to have conducted researcher engagement and announced the outcome of those discussions, including the necessary steps and time required to create this file.
  • Clarifying Permissible Uses of Financial Aid Data for Program Evaluation and Research: The rules for using data within an institution are complex, and both colleges and researchers sometimes lack clarity on how they can use data to improve student outcomes while protecting students’ privacy. That’s why today, the Privacy Technical Assistance Center released guidance that clarifies the ways in which colleges and universities can use Federal student financial aid information for program evaluation and research purposes.
  • Continuing Efforts to Ensure Transparency: Already, we’ve worked to increase the collection and sharing of useful information, through the Department’s Office of Postsecondary Education, FSA, and the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). We’ve built a rich base of data on the student loan portfolio and institutions through the FSA Data Center and created user-friendly tools like the College Scorecard and the Financial Aid Shopping Sheet to put information in the hands of students.We’re also supporting existing efforts to expand data use and evidence about what works. NCES recently announced plans to implement the 2017-18 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study, Administrative Collection (NPSAS: 18-AC), a new financial aid data collection that will allow researchers to examine nationally representative financial aid estimates on a 2-year cycle instead of the current 4-year cycle. Additionally, NCES anticipates that the new study will have representative samples from most States, allowing researchers to generate State-representative financial aid estimates for comparative purposes. And we plan to continue our work to support evidence-based policies and practices with a commitment to supporting the work of the Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking, which was established with bipartisan congressional support last year to create a strategy for increasing the use of data to build better evidence about taxpayer-funded programs.

Better outcomes for postsecondary students can mean huge differences for students, offering them the opportunity to earn personal fulfillment and career success. Our continued commitment to increasing transparency will support evidence-based and data-driven practices that can help all students reach those goals.

Lynn Mahaffie is delegated duties of Assistant Secretary for Postsecondary Education.