tying our own noose with data? higher ed edition
I wanted to start this post with a dramatic question about whether some knowledge is too dangerous to pursue. The H-bomb is probably the archetypal example of this dilemma, and brings to mind Oppenheimer’s quotation of the Bhagavad Gita upon the detonation of Trinity: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.
But really, that’s way too melodramatic for the example I have in mind, which is much more mundane. Much more bureaucratic. It’s less about knowledge that is too dangerous to pursue and more about blindness to the unanticipated — but not unanticipatable — consequences of some kinds of knowledge.
The knowledge I have in mind is the student-unit record. See? I told you it was boring.
The student-unit record is simply a government record that tracks a specific student across multiple educational institutions and into the workforce. Right now, this does not exist for all college students.
There are records of students who apply for federal aid, and those can be tied to tax data down the road. This is what the Department of Education’s College Scorecard is based on: earnings 6-10 years after entry into a particular college. But this leaves out the 30% of students who don’t receive federal aid.
There are states with unit-record systems. Virginia’s is particularly strong: it follows students from Virginia high schools through enrollment in any not-for-profit Virginia college and then into the workforce as reflected in unemployment insurance records. But it loses students who enter or leave Virginia, which is presumably a considerable number.
But there’s currently no comprehensive federal student-unit record system. In fact at the moment creating one is actually illegal. It was banned in an amendment to the Higher Education Act reauthorization in 2008, largely because the higher ed lobby hates the idea.
Having student-unit records available would open up all kind of research possibilities. It would help us see the payoffs not just to college in general, but to specific colleges, or specific majors. It would help us disentangle the effects of the multiple institutions attended by the typical college student. It would allow us to think more precisely about when student loans do, and don’t, pay off. Academics and policy wonks have argued for it on just these grounds.
In fact, basically every social scientist I know would love to see student-unit records become available. And I get it. I really do. I’d like to know the answers to those questions, too.
But I’m really leery of student-unit records. Maybe not quite enough to stand up and say, This is a terrible idea and I totally oppose it. Because I also see the potential benefits. But leery enough to want to point out the consequences that seem likely to follow a student-unit record system. Because I think some of the same people who really love the idea of having this data available would be less enthused about the kind of world it might help, in some marginal way, create.
So, with that as background, here are three things I’d like to see data enthusiasts really think about before jumping on this bandwagon.
First, it is a short path from data to governance. For researchers, the point of student-level data is to provide new insights into what’s working and what isn’t: to better understand what the effects of higher education, and the financial aid that makes it possible, actually are.
But for policy types, the main point is accountability. The main point of collecting student-level data is to force colleges to take responsibility for the eventual labor market outcomes of their students.
Sometimes, that’s phrased more neutrally as “transparency”. But then it’s quickly tied to proposals to “directly tie financial aid availability to institutional performance” and called “an essential tool in quality assurance.”
Now, I am not suggesting that higher education institutions should be free to just take all the federal money they can get and do whatever the heck they want with it. But I am very skeptical that, in general, the net effect of accountability schemes is generally positive. They add bureaucracy, they create new measures to game, and the behaviors they actually encourage tend to be remote from the behaviors they are intended to encourage.
Could there be some positive value in cutting off aid to institutions with truly terrible outcomes? Absolutely. But what makes us think that we’ll end up with that system, versus, say, one that incentivizes schools to maximize students’ earnings, with all the bad behavior that might entail? Anyone who seriously thinks that we would use more comprehensive data to actually improve governance of higher ed should take a long hard look at what’s going on in the UK these days.
Second, student-unit records will intensify our already strong focus on the economic return to college, and further devalue other benefits. Education does many things for people. Helping them earn more money is an important one of those things. It is not, however, the only one.
Education expands people’s minds. It gives them tools for taking advantage of opportunities that present themselves. It gives them options. It helps them to find work they find meaningful, in workplaces where they are treated with respect. And yes, selection effects — or maybe it’s just because they’re richer — but college graduates are happier and healthier than nongraduates.
The thing is, all these noneconomic benefits are difficult to measure. We have no administrative data that tracks people’s happiness, or their health, let alone whether higher education has expanded their internal life.
What we’ve got is the big two: death and taxes. And while it might be nice to know whether today’s 30-year-old graduates are outliving their nongraduate peers in 50 years, in reality it’s tax data we’ll focus on. What’s the economic return to college, by type of student, by institution, by major? And that will drive the conversation even more than it already does. Which to my mind is already too much.
Third, social scientists are occupationally prone to overestimate the practical benefit of more data. Are there things we would learn from student-unit records that we don’t know? Of course. There are all kinds of natural experiments, regression discontinuities, and instrumental variables that could be exploited, particularly around financial aid questions. And it would be great to be able to distinguish between the effects of “college” and the effects of that major at this college.
But we all realize that a lot of the benefit of “college” isn’t a treatment effect. It’s either selection — you were a better student going in, or from a better-off family — or signal — you’re the kind of person who can make it through college; what you did there is really secondary.
Proposals to use income data to understand the effects of college assume that we can adjust for the selection effects, at least, through some kind of value-added model, for example. But this is pretty sketchy. I mean, it might provide some insights for us to think about. But as a basis for concluding that Caltech, Colgate, MIT, and Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology (the top five on Brookings’ list) provide the most value — versus that they have select students who are distinctive in ways that aren’t reflected by adjusting for race, gender, age, financial aid status, and SAT scores — is a little ridiculous.
So, yeah. I want more information about the real impact of college, too. But I just don’t see the evidence out there that having more information is going to lead to policy improvements.
If there weren’t such clear potential negative consequences, I’d say sure, try, it’s worth learning more even if we can’t figure out how to use it effectively. But in a case where there are very clear paths to using this kind of information in ways that are detrimental to higher education, I’d like to see a little more careful thinking about the real likely impacts of student-unit records versus the ones in our technocratic fantasies.