Purposeful Data Systems: A Strategic Approach for PolicymakersBy Linda Baglia -
In today’s economy, a postsecondary degree or similar credential of value is critical for economic and social mobility. During the Great Recession, those without a college degree fared much worse than bachelor’s degree holders — a trend that continued during the recovery. But raising postsecondary attainment levels is a challenge in every state, particularly as the costs of college continue to skyrocket. A comprehensive data system is a vital tool that states can use to help more of their residents achieve postsecondary success.
Good data allow policymakers to easily identify and address gaps in student access and outcomes, particularly for low-income students and students of color. In addition, because the price of a college degree is now so high, interest in return on investment (ROI) has become more important, both to consumers and to policymakers. Policymakers must ask some difficult questions: Are K-12 and higher education institutions providing a high-quality and equitable education to all students? Are students adequately prepared for college-level work? Once enrolled, do they progress in a timely fashion and graduate, and will their degree or credential hold value in our rapidly changing economy? Relevant, reliable, transparent and valid data are essential to help policymakers answer these questions, align statewide policies and investments to state goals and needs, and advance educational opportunities and outcomes for vulnerable student populations. State data systems that connect across all levels, sectors and systems of education, as well as into the workforce (i.e., a p-workforce framework), are the foundation upon which all other education policies and programs must be built to ensure a positive impact for all students.
Over the past few decades, states have invested time and resources to develop comprehensive longitudinal student data systems to help inform decision-making. According to the State Higher Education Executive Officers’ (SHEEO) Strong Foundations, 2018 report, 32 states have postsecondary data systems that also connect to K-12 and to workforce/labor. But are policymakers actually using these data to drive policy decisions? Research conducted by HCM Strategists reveals that only 13 states also established feedback loops with the K-12 and workforce sectors to share data. This is just one example of the challenges states face when determining how to best use data to drive better policy and outcomes. This paper, therefore, aims to help policymakers identify the essential core components of an effective data system, as well as barriers to implementation, common pitfalls and potential solutions.