ON THE AGENDA | JUNE 5TH, 2014 | Allison Rizzolo

Missing the Mark on Big Data in Higher Ed

For some students, the data behind the proposed college rating system just aren't meaningful.

Word that the federal administration intends to create a grading system for colleges has unnerved college leaders and set off a maelstrom of debate. But all of the arguments cast out by both supporters and naysayers lack a key consideration: for some students, at least, the data behind the proposed grading system just aren't meaningful.

The college grading system ostensibly aims to help prospective students make better choices about where to attend school. Ultimately, grades would be used to allocate federal student loans and grants. The system would be based on factors including how many students graduate from the college, how much debt they accrue, and what alumni earn.

But prospective students we surveyed last year - many of whom are underserved by the traditional college system - did not immediately understand how these sorts of data relate to their own chances for success in college and in the work force. In fact, just about half of the students we surveyed think statistics like a college's graduation rate, loan default rate, or the types of jobs and salaries that average graduates get is "essential" information to know during college searches.

In focus groups, these students assumed such metrics reflected more on the effort of individuals and less on the school. They believe they will stick to it and graduate - and it's good that they have this optimism! So, for them, information about graduation or drop-out rates isn't particularly valuable during college searches.

This blasť attitude seems at odds with the worries and priorities these students have about potential schools - affordability, debt and job prospects top the list. But it's not that students are thoughtless or willfully ignorant. The problem is that big data is failing to meet its mark.

If higher education leaders truly want to help prospective students choose a college that maximizes their academic and financial prospects, they must engage students and provide the support these students need to interpret school quality data and connect it to their own lives.

Learn more about how they can do so.


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