Answering the Call: Institutions and States Lead the Way Toward Better Measures of Postsecondary Performance
Written by Dr Jennifer Engle, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
In an era of escalating costs and uncertain outcomes, it is imperative that prospective students, policymakers, and the public have answers to commonsense questions about whether and which colleges and programs offer a quality education at an affordable price. At present, we still lack answers to critical questions, including:
- How many “post-traditional” students—the low-income, first-generation, adult, transfer, and part-time students who make up the new majority on today’s campuses—attend college? Do they reach graduation and how long does it take them?
- Are students making sufficient progress toward timely completion, particularly students who enter with less academic preparation or fewer financial resources?
- Do the students who don’t graduate transfer to other colleges and earn credentials, or do they drop out completely?
- How much debt are students accumulating from the college(s) they attend—and can they repay their loans?
- Are students gaining employment in their chosen field after attending college, and how much do they earn?
- How much are students learning from their college experience, and how are they using their knowledge and skills to contribute to their communities?1
The metrics published today often only include “traditional” students and ignore the new normal in higher education: “post-traditional” students attending college—or colleges—in new ways en route to their credentials. Colleges and universities, and the data systems that support them, must adjust to and reflect the experiences and outcomes of all students, not just the outdated “traditional” student profile. It’s time for a system reboot. And we need only look to leading institutions and states for the operating manual. Over the past decade, thousands of colleges serving tens of millions of students in all 50 states have participated in data-driven reform initiatives—from Achieving the Dream (ATD) to Completion by Design (CBD) to Complete College America (CCA).2 In response to the information that campus and system leaders need to support improvement in their communities not being readily or publicly available in existing data sets, these initiatives created and collected new and more robust measures of student access, progress, and outcomes.
In this paper, we share what the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has learned from vanguard institutions and states about how to improve and use postsecondary data to increase student outcomes. Our aim is twofold. First, the field has demonstrated the validity and value of these metrics over time and we intend to use them to evaluate the impact of the foundation’s own investments toward increasing the attainment of career-relevant credentials and closing attainment gaps.
Second, informed by evidence demonstrating the significant progress that select institutions and states have made through the use of improved data, the foundation will work with partners and policymakers to support the widespread adoption and use of these metrics. Improving the quality and relevance of postsecondary data across the field can better inform higher education practice and policy decisions that, in turn, can boost college access and success across the country. Institutions and states that are already taking advantage of the potential of better data not only show us that doing so is possible, but that it is essential.
The foundation has partnered with the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP) to develop a metrics framework that represents how leading institutions and states are measuring their performance. The framework is the product of an extensive landscape and literature review, as well as consultation with a diverse array of experts in the field. The framework offers a set of metrics that are currently in use by major initiatives to measure institutional performance related to student access, progression, completion, cost, and post-college outcomes. The framework also highlights metrics in use that examine institutional performance in relation to resources (efficiency) and with respect to diverse populations (equity). These metrics are certainly not the only data that should be collected or used to inform decision-making in higher education but do represent a baseline that has garnered consensus across institutions, organizations, and states.
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