Graduates wait in line after commencement ceremonies in Princeton, New Jersey, on June 5, 2012. Source: AP/Mel Evans
Letter to U.S. Department of Education urges release of privacy-protected and secure data to better understand financial aid programs.
Washington, D.C. —(ENEWSPF)–October 25, 2016. Today, the Center for American Progress led a broad coalition of more than 100 leading researchers and policy organizations on a letter calling for the Department of Education to release better data on federal student aid. Every year, the Department of Education hands out approximately $116 billion in federal financial aid, but policymakers, students, and the public are in the dark about the outcomes of this vital investment. There are not consistent answers to key questions such as: How quickly do borrowers pay down loans over time? How many borrowers default beyond the three-year period that is currently measured? And how do loan outcomes vary by student characteristics, loan type, repayment plan, and servicer?
The Department of Education already operates a robust system that contains complete information on outcomes for every federal student loan or grant recipient—the National Student Loan Data System, or NSLDS. The letter sent today to the department notes that granting better access to just a representative subset of NSLDS data would revolutionize the ability to analyze federal financial aid investments.
“Improving access to data would expand our understanding of the federal student aid programs,” said Ben Miller, Senior Director for Postsecondary Education at the Center for American Progress. “Researchers would produce more useful, actionable work to drive evidence-based policymaking. And we would have a better accounting of where these programs excel or could do better in serving students.”
“Policymakers are trying to address problems we aren’t sure exist, using policies whose impacts we know nearly nothing about. This ignorance is in large measure self-imposed: the Department of Education collects incredibly rich data on the experiences of students receiving federal financial aid at nearly every college in the country, yet this data is rarely leveraged to inform policy development,” said Jordan Matsudaira, assistant professor at Cornell University and former chief economist of the White House Council of Economic Advisers. “If we are going to make progress in understanding how to help struggling student borrowers; creating policies that hold institutions accountable to their students’ success without undermining access goals; or learning how changes in college prices affect who enrolls in higher education and how successful they are, we need to start by turning on the lights. We need to get the information we have into the hands of education policy experts to start building the evidence base required for informed decision making.”
To date, the Department of Education has released substantial amounts of data on higher education outcomes through the College Scorecard and plans to grant researchers on-site access to data through its Advancing Insights through Aid pilot. Both are important steps to improving knowledge of the federal aid programs, but thus far, the department has granted functionally no access to NSLDS data. The researchers and policymakers note in their letter that fuller data access would provide a better understanding of whether the various borrower benefits offered to students really are effective at preventing default; could shed light on long-term trends in student loan nonrepayment; and show which schools really excel with their borrowers. The information gleaned and the lessons learned could create the evidence needed to engage in smarter policymaking.