Regular readers of this blog may have noticed that one of my somewhat obsessive hobbyhorse issues areas of signficant interest is the ongoing debate about establishing a national “unit record” higher education data system.
Put simply, the federal government wants to improve the ways it collects information about college performance, using privacy protected data about individual students. The associations of private colleges have fought a scorched-earth P.R. campaign against the system, basically calling it the precursor to an Orwellian police state.
That tactic has been pretty successful–the House of Representatives passes legislation banning the system earlier this year–partly because supporters of the system from within higher education, of which there are many, haven’t been as focal in presenting the opposing view.
That’s why its was great to open up the Washington Post this morning and read an excellent, well-reasoned Op-ed supporting the system written by Thomas Hochstettler, President of Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon. It’s definitely worth reading in its entirety, but here’s his case in a nutshell:
Where some see the specter of Big Brother looking over colleges’ and students’ shoulders, I see a potential for a robust (and privacy-protected) set of metrics that would yield essential data with tremendous potential for advancing our individual institutions and for identifying with greater precision those areas where our national education policy needs to be strengthened. Where some see the specter of government intrusion, I see the possibility of transforming our current separate data-reporting schemes into a streamlined system that is beneficial to students and useful to faculty and administrators.
Contrary to what critics of the database plan might have the public believe, we in academia know remarkably little about what emerges from the vast and diverse system of higher education. Why do students drop out? Where do they go when they do? What factors in primary and secondary school, beyond grade-point averages, class rankings and standardized test scores, best predict their success or failure in college? What impact does their educational experience have on our students’ success or failure after graduation?
We are ill-equipped to answer these questions. Without comprehensive information, both individual institutions and society lack the tools to assess how the system is working, how it is failing and how it might be improved.
Why would the president of a private college like Lewis and Clark–along with most of the major associations of public institutions–support the new data system? I’m guessing because they know that they’re ill-served by the current higher education market, which is starved for real information about quality. When the public has no good data about which institutions are actually serving students best, it naturally falls back on the long-established, written-in-stone higher education pecking order, which favors elite private institutions. Getting more good information into the hands of the public–precisely the goal of the data system in question–would allow all the other institutions to be judged more fairly on their merits.