The process of reauthorizing the Higher Education Act (HEA) has once again begun in Washington, DC. While this may seem remote from survey administration and analysis, current draft bills circulating to reauthorize HEA pertain to campus-level student data in highly specific ways.
The Republican and Democratic approaches to reauthorizing HEA differ: the Republicans have offered thus far a white paper on their priorities and three separate bills on different aspects of HEA. The white paper focuses on accountability and informed decision-making by “the consumer” and calls for reforming federal education data collection to achieve this goal: “For example, information collected by IPEDS must be improved and the delivery of information streamlined to reduce confusion….The IPEDS data collection must be updated so it captures more than first-time, full-time students” (pp. 2-3).
The bill most pertinent to institutional and survey researchers is H.R. 4983, introduced by Representative Virginia Foxx (R-SC). As of July 24, the bill has passed the House of Representatives and been referred to the Senate. H.R. 4983 eliminates certain data elements from the federal College Navigator website that were signatures of the last HEA reauthorization—the college affordability and transparency lists (aka “watch list”), the state higher education spending charts, and multiyear tuition calculator—but also revamps College Navigator in many ways. These include adding links to Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data on both regional and national starting salaries “in all major occupations” and links to “more detailed and disaggregated information” on institutions’ “faculty and student enrollment, completion rates, costs, and use and repayment of financial aid” (Congressional Research Service [CRS] bill summary). Detailed minimum requirements would also be imposed on the net-price calculator currently in operation, including distinguishing veterans education benefits from other financial aid and providing links to information on those benefits if the calculator does not estimate their eligibility (Congressional Research Service [CRS] bill summary).
The contrasting Democratic approach has been Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA)’s release of a draft omnibus bill reauthorizing all of HEA. Specific sections readers may find most interesting—though reading the entire 785-page bill is useful for contextualizing data issues—are Title I, Secs. 108, 109, and 113, as well as Title IX, Sec. 902. These sections relate to College Navigator and the College Scorecard (Title I, Secs. 108 & 109), a new complaint resolution and tracking system (Title I, Sec. 113), and a new data center tracking data on students with disabilities (Title IX, Sec. 901). In addition, joint letter from the American Council on Education and 20 other higher education associations suggests that a unit-record database provision will be reinserted into this draft.
The Democratic draft bill adds data to College Navigator such as “the number of returning faculty (by full-time and part-time status, tenure status, and contract length)” (Sec. 108). In addition, it majorly expands the College Scorecard to include items such as average net price broken out by enrolled students’ family income with a comparison to other institutions, completion percentages for all undergraduate certificate- or degree-seeking students, both term-to-term and year-to-year persistence percentages for all undergraduate certificate- or degree-seeking students, the percentage of students who transfer to four-year institutions from two-year institutions within 100% and 150% of normal time; comparisons to other institutions is required for all points. Institutions will be required to make their most recent College Scorecard publicly available on their website, distribute it to prospective and accepted students regardless of whether the information was requested “in a manner that allows for the student or the family of the student to take such information into account before applying or enrolling” (Sec. 133(i)(2)(B), p. 51).
The new complaint resolution and tracking system (Title I, Sec. 113) would create a new federal complaint system—and office within the Department of Education—to track and respond to complaints from students, family members of students, third parties acting on behalf of students, and staff members or employees of institutions against higher education institutions receiving funds authorized under HEA. Complaints are defined as “complaints or inquiries regarding the educational practices and services, and recruiting and marketing practices, of all postsecondary educational institutions” (Sec. 161(b)(1), p. 60). Institutions would be required to respond to the Secretary of Education no later than 60 days including what steps they have taken to respond, all responses received by the complainant, and any additional actions taken or planned in response (Sec. 161(c)(2), pp. 60- 62). The Department of Education will publish the number and type of complaints and inquiries received as well as information about their resolution; it will also be required to submit a report to authorizing committees on type and number of complaints, to what extent they have been resolved, patterns of complaint in any given sector of postsecondary institutions, legislative recommendations from the Secretary to “better assist students and families,” and the schools with the highest complaint volume as determined by the Secretary (Sec. 161(4)(d)(A-E), pp. 65-66).
The creation of the National Data Center on Higher Education and Disability (Title IX, Sec. 902) will require institutions participating in Title IV financial aid programs submit information on their programs and services for students with disabilities, including “individual-level, de-identified data describing services and accommodations provided to students with disabilities, as well as the retention and graduation rates of students with disabilities who sought disability services and accommodations from the institution of higher education” (Sec. 903(b)(6), p. 611) and “shall collect, organize, and submit such data in a way that supports disaggregation” (Sec. 903(c), p. 611) by 13 specified disability categories (Sec. 903(a), p. 610). This data will be made available to the public.
As always, the road to HEA reauthorization is long and winding. While Senator Harkin recently mentioned trying to move forward on HEA during the lame duck session of Congress, it is by no means certain. The issues of data collection raised by draft provisions on both the Republican and Democratic sides, however, are crucial both in research and practice. What data are most useful to parents, students, and other higher education stakeholders who need data to better serve their student and institutional populations? Are those even the same data points? What purpose—or how many purposes—should federal postsecondary education data collection serve? How much data collection is too much data collection? What privacy issues are raised by proposed HEA provisions? Is federal legislation even the place to answer these questions?
The best advice we can offer is to stay tuned and stay informed. Researchers and survey administrators/analysts have not only a critical stake in the outcome, but can provide an informed perspective to the various parties involved in Reauthorization.