Measuring Performance in Higher Education

K-12 education has been, in recent years, the subject of a massive amount of data-gathering and analysis. From individual classrooms to state boards of education, data is being used to evaluate, to tailor instruction, and to set goals and track performance. Through an examination of the data, we are asking questions: Are we producing the results we want to see? Are we investing public money wisely?

More recently, some of that attention has shifted to higher education.

Last month saw the release of a new College Scorecard by the U.S. Department of Education, a web-based, user-friendly presentation of data on institutions of higher learning.

Parents, students, and state taxpayers all have an interest in evaluating their investment in higher education. And the federal government is increasingly interested in the performance of higher education institutions since the entire apparatus of higher education relies heavily on federal financing, through grants and loans.

Many of the Scorecard’s statistics have long been available. In Alabama, the Alabama Commission on Higher Education (ACHE) is the centralized source of higher education data-gathering. ACHE produces regular reports on a wide variety of metrics and publishes them on its website. Collected nationally, these statistics have long been used by news organizations or other publications to rank colleges.

The new federal site makes the data more accessible, and it adds financial information about the earnings of graduates. Aggregated earnings and loan repayment information are drawn from tax returns filed with the IRS and matched with students who used financial aid to help pay for college.

As with any statistics, it is important to acknowledge the limitations of the data and also to consider it in context. The Department of Education plans to continue refining the data and its presentation. And this first publication is receiving both praise and criticism, as well as suggestions for how it might be improved in the future.

Here are a few of the limitations:

A) Earnings data is based only on students who used federal loans to help pay for college.

B) Average salary data mixes students who pursue a wide variety of professions, some highly paid and others that aren’t.

C) The socio-economic status of students entering colleges is highly correlated with student status after leaving college, thus any comparisons between schools should take the composition of the student body into account.

To further explain that last point: the effects of poverty that we see in K-12 education data don’t disappear in higher education. For example, we find lower graduation rates at schools where the majority of students come from low-income households. At those schools, students tend to enter with lower levels of college readiness, as reflected in lower average ACT scores.

Those students have often come from under-resourced or academically challenged schools. All public institutions, and, in particular, historically black colleges and universities make it a point to provide access to such students. That access is vital, but it’s equally important that students succeed once they are admitted.

Lower-income college students end up having to borrow more to finance a college education. They often face greater challenges staying in college and finishing on time because of financial pressures. The new figures show that schools that work with the most challenged students have lower rates of graduation and higher levels of debt on graduation. That is not particularly surprising, but the release of the new data is causing all colleges and universities to put more energy into keeping students in school and on track to graduate.

The new data also highlights the importance of Plan 2020, Alabama’s strategic plan for improving public education. Plan 2020 sets a goal of having all graduates prepared for college and career. All public school students now take the ACT college readiness test in the fall of the 11th grade. If a student fails to achieve a benchmark score on any of the ACT subjects, it indicates that student isn’t prepared for college-level work. Knowing that, a student and the high school can focus on those areas that need improvement.

If K-12 and colleges can cooperate in bringing these students up to proficiency before they graduate high school, those students would be less likely to need remediation once they reach college. They’d also be much more likely to graduate and move into higher earning professions.

Below is a presentation of results for Alabama schools drawn from the College Scorecard data. Use the tabs at the top of the chart to navigate through the data.