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Taking the Lead on Evidence

Friday, May 30, 2014

As calls multiply for more and better information about how well colleges and universities are serving today’s college students, higher education institutions from all sectors need to take the lead in framing debates and taking action to advance appropriate metrics both to illuminate the learning gained through college study and also to accurately report students’ progress toward degree completion.

Nearly everyone agrees that existing national data systems—including the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDs) administered by the US Department of Education—are inadequate to answer important questions about college students’ progress to degrees and their achievement of Essential Learning Outcomes along the way. IPEDs, in particular, tracks only the progress of first-time, full-time students enrolled at one institution. IPEDs data also provides no evidence on student learning and, in fact, the Department of Education is prohibited by law from gathering national evidence of student learning.

Encouragingly, however, the limitations on existing data sets have prompted a new wave of initiatives, across all sectors of postsecondary learning, to develop a fuller picture of students’ progress and accomplishments in college. With this message to our members, AAC&U strongly encourages higher education’s support of significant, association-led efforts that are working proactively to develop better data on both the quality of learning and on students’ progress toward degree attainment.

Better Data on Completion and Quality of Learning

As AAC&U has made clear in such board-level statements as The Quality Imperative, higher education needs to provide more and better evidence of what students are learning as they progress toward completion—not just better data on completion rates.  AAC&U is working actively on this issue with creative institutional partners throughout the country. For example, in the current phase of AAC&U’s VALUE (Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate Education) initiative, we are partnering with the State Higher Education Executive Officers (SHEEO) on a Multi-state Collaborative to Advance Learning Outcomes Assessment and with over 70 institutions to develop better approaches to assessing student learning and to reporting results that are useful to faculty and institutions and to state agencies and accreditors. Our goal is a new platform that will use students’ own work as the best evidence of their achievement of such widely endorsed learning outcomes as critical thinking, communication skills, quantitative reasoning, ethical reasoning, and civic learning. This is work-in-progress that will help everyone answer the question: “So you got a degree. What can you actually do with your learning?”

Better Data on Student Pathways to Degrees

These efforts to improve the collection and dissemination of evidence on learning, however, must be complemented by other efforts to significantly improve our approach to advancing and documenting students’ persistence, successful transfer, and attainment of degrees. With specific reference to the IPEDs limitations, AAC&U’s Board of Directors has affirmed that, while “we actively support the ongoing national effort to help many more students enroll and succeed in college,” the data currently available—and proposed for use in various ratings of colleges and universities—are seriously limited in their capacity to generate an accurate picture of today’s students and their sometimes complicated pathways into and through college.

In this context, AAC&U applauds the efforts of several sister associations that are working actively to develop new approaches to collecting data on student progress, time-to-degree, and graduation rates. We encourage all colleges and universities to consider participating in one or more of these efforts.

Of particular interest is the newly created Student Achievement Measure (SAM) which is an improved way to report undergraduate student progress and completion that includes a greater proportion of students and tracks students who enroll in multiple higher education institutions. The SAM project is a joint initiative of six national higher education presidential associations: the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU), the American Association of Universities (AAU), the American Council on Education (ACE), the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities (APLU), and the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU).

In addition, we encourage our member colleges, community colleges, and universities, to explore whether participation in the Voluntary System of Accountability (sponsored by AASCU and APLU), the U-CAN initiative (sponsored by NAICU) or the Voluntary Framework of Accountability (sponsored by AACC) would be useful to them in presenting a more accurate picture of their own institutional results aligned appropriately with individual institutional missions and student populations.

No data system is perfect, but we warmly encourage continued efforts to improve the data we gather about student progress and about students’ achievement of the learning they need for success in the wider society.