Research News

Researchers call on Department of Education to release better data on student aid

October 26, 2016

The Center for American Progress led a coalition of more than 100 researchers and policy organizations on a letter calling for the Department of Education to release better data on federal student aid.

Among those signing this letter are two faculty members with UW-Madison’s Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis, Associate Professor Nicholas Hillman and Assistant Professor Claudia Persico. Hillman also is a Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education (WISCAPE) faculty affiliate.

Two other people with ties to UW-Madison, Drew M. Anderson, a postdoctoral researcher, and David Monohagn of the HOPE Lab, also signed.

According to a news release from the Center for American Progress, every year the Department of Education hands out approximately $116 billion in federal financial aid, but policymakers, students, and the public are in the dark about the outcomes of this vital investment. There are not consistent answers to key questions such as: How quickly do borrowers pay down loans over time? How many borrowers default beyond the three-year period that is currently measured? And how do loan outcomes vary by student characteristics, loan type, repayment plan, and servicer?

The news release continues by stating that the Department of Education already operates a robust system that contains complete information on outcomes for every federal student loan or grant recipient—the National Student Loan Data System, or NSLDS. The letter sent to the department notes that granting better access to just a representative subset of NSLDS data would revolutionize the ability to analyze federal financial aid investments.

“Improving access to data would expand our understanding of the federal student aid programs,” said Ben Miller, senior director for postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress says in the news release. “Researchers would produce more useful, actionable work to drive evidence-based policymaking. And we would have a better accounting of where these programs excel or could do better in serving students.”

“Policymakers are trying to address problems we aren’t sure exist, using policies whose impacts we know nearly nothing about. This ignorance is in large measure self-imposed: the Department of Education collects incredibly rich data on the experiences of students receiving federal financial aid at nearly every college in the country, yet this data is rarely leveraged to inform policy development,” Jordan Matsudaira, assistant professor at Cornell University and former chief economist of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, added in the news release. “If we are going to make progress in understanding how to help struggling student borrowers; creating policies that hold institutions accountable to their students’ success without undermining access goals; or learning how changes in college prices affect who enrolls in higher education and how successful they are, we need to start by turning on the lights. We need to get the information we have into the hands of education policy experts to start building the evidence base required for informed decision making.”

To date, the Department of Education has released substantial amounts of data on higher education outcomes through the College Scorecard and plans to grant researchers on-site access to data through its Advancing Insights through Aid pilot. Both are important steps to improving knowledge of the federal aid programs, but thus far, the department has granted functionally no access to NSLDS data.