State Postsecondary Data 101
Written by: John Armstrong
John Armstrong is a senior policy analyst with the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association
Demand is high for detailed information on students’ progress and outcomes through their postsecondary education. Many factors contribute to this increased desire for information, including a renewed emphasis on institutional accountability, interest in consumer information for prospective students and regular inquiries from policymakers to state coordinating and governing boards. State Postsecondary Unit Record Systems (PSURS) are the primary means for gathering student progress and outcomes metrics at a state level. PSURS generate critical information on key state-level initiatives to improve student success, such as performance funding, workforce outcomes, and improving remedial education.
PSURS have expanded amidst the increasing demand for this kind of information to include more data elements and link to other public databases to enable analysis of students across the educational pipeline and into the workforce. SHEEO has periodically administered a survey of PSURS since 2010. Over the last eight years, linkages have grown to the point that 29 states (see below) are able to connect unit records from K-12 and college and into the workforce. This allows researchers to report metrics relating to transitions along the educational pipeline. Examples of such reports include high school feedback to K-12 principals denoting the percentage of high school graduates who went on to earn a degree and wage outcome reports for postsecondary graduates by discipline.
However, despite this growth in metrics collection and linkages, barriers to effective use persist in many states and coverage of postsecondary institutions is often limited to public institutions. As of 2016, only eighteen states’ PSURS contained unit records from private, not-for-profit institutions, and only seven states indicated that their PSURS included records from public, private not-for-profit, and for-profit institutions. As more students “swirl” between institutions, reporting basic indicators of student outcomes can critically omit students who attend more than one institution. Additionally, agency capacity to analyze these data and dedicated funding streams to maintain these databases is often limited. Finally, legislation that forbids the linking of unit record data for research purposes has been proposed in several states and enacted (and later amended to allow linking) in one case.
SHEEO’s report, The State of State Postsecondary Data Systems: Strong Foundations 2016 contains the following recommendations for policymakers to improve the capacity and use of these data systems.
Tie the PSURS to Strategic Planning Efforts
When the strategic plan for a state contains specific metrics that track student progress and outcomes, it sets a primary deliverable for PSURS and increases the awareness of postsecondary students’ data. One particularly effective strategy to this end is to include the director for research and planning in senior leadership planning sessions and strategy sessions.
Address privacy concerns head on
Agencies should have a plan to protect personally identifiable information of all students in the PSURS and communicate this plan to relevant stakeholders. Because constituents and users of data are increasingly concerned about protecting student privacy and confidentiality, SHEEO has asked additional questions relating to privacy in its latest iteration of the Strong Foundations survey — the accompanying report will be released in July 2018.
Serve the needs of constituents
Each primary audience of PSURS data, including administrators, legislators, policymakers and students should be able to easily access and understand relevant metrics calculated by the PSURS. The best way to make sure that key decisions are made with a data-driven mindset is to deliver this information directly to its consumers.
An update to the Strong Foundations survey will be released in July of 2018. Be on the look out for additional examples of best practices, updated trend data on the capacities and uses of PSURS, and recommendations for improving PSURS and their uses.