Access, Equity, P-20W Data

Efforts to Address Postsecondary Education Inequities Require More and Better Data

Efforts to Address Postsecondary Education Inequities Require More and Better Data

Statewide data systems must be designed to connect students to the supports they need to complete their college education. This guest blog post is from Jinann Bitar, Director of Higher Education Research and Data Analytics at The Education Trust. Jinann shares her expertise on why it is crucial for states to modernize their state data systems in order to improve postsecondary education access, affordability, and success for all students.

Despite the well-documented value of having a college degree, there are deep and persistent challenges in terms of who among us can access, afford, and complete high-quality education and training programs after high school. State investments in modernized data systems are needed to improve postsecondary education opportunities and outcomes for all.

Only a quarter of Latino adults and about a third of Black adults have a college degree, compared with about half of white adults. Tens of millions of Americans—disproportionately people of color and students from low-income backgrounds—start college and never finish. They have student debt, but no college degree, limiting their access to higher wage jobs with benefits where a college degree remains a requirement. Education and income inequities could worsen as the growth of artificial intelligence (AI) reshapes the labor market. These are big problems we must solve together. More and better data must be part of the solution.

Data—whether numbers in spreadsheets or stories from stakeholders—can provide decisionmakers with insights into what’s working, what isn’t, for whom, and how to help students navigate college and career pathways. And while the federal government gathers a great deal of information—particularly related to student financial aid and overall college outcomes—the prohibition on a federal database with information about individual students limits the usefulness of federal data for policymaking. That’s one reason state data systems are so important. State data systems can include more granular data reflecting student attributes, experiences, and outcomes, shining a light on racial and economic disparities and what’s working to eliminate them. And state education data can be combined with data from human services and workforce agencies to paint a fuller picture of which policies are working for which students and residents—and where there are opportunities for better policy and program alignment.

When it comes to increasing postsecondary education access, affordability, and success—especially for students facing higher barriers on their career journeys beyond high school—data plays three key roles to:

1. Enable informed policymaking.

Robust data, connected over time and across sectors, helps decisionmakers craft policies and design programs that increase opportunity and support students. Kentucky, for example, has created numerous tools and reports using insights from their P–20W data system to inform decisionmakers. And they’re looking for more ways to use data to improve student outcomes. In fact, the state’s 2023–25 research agenda prioritizes the use of modeling and predictive analytics to understand the connections and barriers in the state’s education and workforce systems and how those impact long-term outcomes in other key sectors (e.g., health, justice, housing). Kentucky is committed to disaggregating data by race, region, and resources to identify, understand, and address disparities for students and families in the state.

2. Support education and career pathway decisionmaking.

Individuals need support navigating education and career pathways and being able to see themselves in the data. Washington provides a public dashboard that reports outcomes at the state’s public colleges. The dashboard allows users to break down the data in many ways, showing students, parents, teachers, and counselors whether students with similar backgrounds and identities have been successful at different colleges.

3. Evaluate publicly funded education programs and build evidence of what works.

Data can help leaders evaluate education programs and build new evidence. The evidence and evaluation requirements for the Postsecondary Student Success Grant (PSSG) Program are examples of the importance of using data in these ways. Institutions of higher education that receive PSSG grants are required to use promising or proven strategies to boost college persistence and completion and to evaluate the success of their programs. By requiring the use of data in program design and evaluation, the PSSG Program is creating incentives for colleges to use strategies most likely to help their students and contributing to greater understanding of what works for whom and under what circumstances to support students in completing college. This information, in turn, will inform future policies, programs, and spending.

Unfortunately, many colleges and universities don’t have the resources or capacity to effectively evaluate their own programs—particularly, minority-serving institutions (MSIs), community colleges, and other institutions of higher education that serve students with greatest need But modernized statewide longitudinal data systems (SLDSs) can help.

With modernized SLDSs, states can use data to inform policymaking, improve student and family decisionmaking, and build evidence for what works in ways that improve overall outcomes while also identifying, explaining, and eliminating any disparities.

More governors, state legislators, and federal policymakers need to see the wisdom in increasing state support for state data systems as part of their workforce and economic development agendas. Democratizing access to quality data increases the potential of more young Americans earning college degrees and contributing to our economy.

Discover how Ed Trust is helping states advance their education goals. Click here to learn more about the A.S.P.I.I.R.E.S Framework.