Access, Federal Advocacy

Postsecondary Student Success Grantees Need Data Access, Infrastructure, and Capacity

Postsecondary Student Success Grantees Need Data Access, Infrastructure, and Capacity

Less than two thirds of students pursuing a bachelor’s degree complete their degree within six years, and only about one third of students at two-year institutions graduate within 150 percent of the expected time to completion. Postsecondary Student Success grants aim to change that. These grants are a smart federal investment designed to deepen institutional, state, and federal policymakers’ knowledge about what works to support students through to college completion. To help achieve this impact, the evaluations funded through these grants must be grounded in quality data and should leverage their state’s broader statewide longitudinal data system (SLDS). 

Postsecondary Student Success Grants support evidence-based efforts by colleges and state systems of higher education to increase completion rates. The grant program will divide its funding between proven and promising programs so that the higher education community can both scale what works and replicate interventions that succeeded at other institutions. Understanding the impact of these programs at a new site with a new cohort and demographic of students will add to policymakers’ knowledge of what works to help students complete a postsecondary education program.  

The grants wisely require an evaluation component to measure the outcomes of each program that receives funding. The evaluation requirement provides an opportunity for the US Department of Education (ED) to leverage existing SLDSs to ensure the knowledge base that results from these grants is shared as broadly as possible and to help states conduct their rigorous studies in as cost-efficient a manner as possible. Doing so will also enable grantees to understand the long-term impact of their program, such as the earnings associated with students supported by the program. 

However, the lack of state data that is aligned with or available to improve student college completion outcomes will be a huge impediment to effectively evaluating the programs funded by these grants. The data systems of postsecondary institutions and state systems of higher education have generally lagged behind their K–12 counterparts because of the lack of stable, consistent, dedicated funding. Creating a source of stable funding for postsecondary data systems is critical. But, in the interim, a few small additions to the Postsecondary Student Success Grants application requirement could ensure grantees have the data, infrastructure, and capacity to support rigorous evaluations.  

Specifically, ED should: 

  • State clearly that grantees may use funds for data infrastructure and capacity in the invitation for applications. Data infrastructure and capacity are crucial for strong evaluations. Grantees shouldn’t have to guess how they can use dollars and are more likely to apply funds toward infrastructure and capacity with clarity from ED. A common-sense application of both the Government Accountability Office’s “necessary expense” rule and the Office of Management and Budget’s interpretation of what constitutes evaluation activities supports this approach. 
  • Encourage intentional partnership with the state in which the grantee is located, including the state’s SLDS, to understand long-term social and economic outcomes for participants. ED should require that grantees’ evaluation plans contain a specific data plan: a discussion of needed data, how it will be collected and accessed, and how it will be used to carry out the evaluation. That data plan should be accompanied by a letter of intent from the state indicating its willingness to work with the school on accessing the data necessary to understand long-term social and economic outcomes of participants. Expanding the field’s understanding of not just whether a program leads to college completion, but also of the longer-term social and economic mobility benefits that flow from that completion, could provide greater clarity for future students about which institutions are most likely to provide them the best return on their investment. 
  • Facilitate data access to conduct rigorous evaluations at a lower cost. Much of the data needed to understand long-term outcomes is federal or controlled by federal regulations and guidance, like unemployment insurance (UI) wage data. By using a privacy-protecting platform like the Department of Labor’s State Wage Interchange System or Coleridge Institute’s Administrative Data Research Facility, grantees could securely connect client-level data with sensitive earnings data to produce aggregated outcome statistics for program participants. These secure connections would improve accuracy and reduce the burden of costly surveys that grantees would otherwise need to track down participants who have left the institution.  

To ensure these grants fulfill their potential, ED should ensure grantees’ evaluation plans are focused on long-term outcomes and not just short-term rewards. That work requires collaboration with partners like their state’s SLDS to support and facilitate the data components of grantees’ evaluation plans.