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Students Need Data to Make the Right Choice

When I started applying to colleges, I did so with every advantage in the world. My guidance counselor sent me information for schools that aligned with my career interests and level of academic achievement. My mom traveled with me around the country to visit schools, and my older family and friends all shared with me opinions on their almae matres. When I began applying, I did so fully informed about where I wanted to go, what it would take to get there, and how much it would cost me to attend. Today I’m happy with where I chose to go to school, largely because I knew enough to know it would be right for me.

Not every student has these same privileges. For students in high schools without active guidance counselors, or from families without the same connections or resources, the college application process looks a lot different. In 2013, over 10 for-profit Illinois colleges had student loan default rates exceeding 15 percent. Many of these were schools that my mentors – my counselor and parents and family – had all pushed me away from. And yet, thousands of other students didn’t know enough about the value of these schools’ degrees, or lack thereof, to know to stay away.

It’s not just for-profit schools where a lack of information is a problem. In a 2012 U.S. Chamber of Commerce report card on the public educational systems in every U.S. state, Illinois was graded a disappointing D in “Transparency and Accountability.” While Illinois has done exemplary work in the K – 12 system with the Illinois Report Card, which outlines how each school, district, and Illinois is doing on several education goals, the U.S. Chamber report card demonstrates that Illinois has room for improvement in providing young adults critical information on higher education in Illinois. This past gap in information has inadvertently held back vulnerable young adults. Fortunately, Illinois is soon launching a higher education report and can learn from other states as it launches this work.

So what does a transparent state actually look like? That same set of report cards gave Minnesota a perfect “A” rating in transparency, citing both Minnesota’s Statewide Longitudinal Educational Data System (SLEDS) and its annually published Minnesota Measures report for the state’s success in demonstrating its successes and failures in education.

These two programs work together to clearly inform Minnesota’s citizens about the effectiveness of their state’s educational institutions. If Doris from Rochester reads in Minnesota Measures that the percentage of students from her local high school needing to take remedial coursework in college has risen dramatically in the past five years, she has the information available at her fingertips to ask her school district to develop an intervention. And if Tom from St. Paul realizes that alumni from one university begin their careers making much more than those with the same degree from a school down the street, he can use that information to decide which college is best for his career aspirations.

Longitudinal data is the concrete foundation to effective educational policy. It’s not flashy or pompous. It’s reliable, secure, and critically important to long-term student success. Longitudinal data lets students know which programs will best prepare them for the career they want. It’s a critically important equalizer, and it’s done best when it’s accessible to all.

Imagine that the next time you google a university, or even a school’s specific program area, you’re greeted on the right-hand side of your screen with a box showing not just the acceptance rate and enrollment, but also grades for things like recent graduate salaries and loan debt. With the availability of a longitudinal data system, parents and prospective students, from advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds alike, could easily understand the effectiveness of potential schools and have access to the underlying data shaping those evaluations.

The very good news for Illinois is that a longitudinal data system, like SLEDS, is already in development. The Illinois Longitudinal Data System (ILDS) has already been established by Senate Bill 182, Public Act 96-0107, and is enabled by two federal grants. So far tremendous progress has been made in the system’s development, supported by an advisory group of key stakeholders and input from focus groups composed of members of the general public. With the help of these two groups progress has been so swift, in fact, that the ILDS’s first report card will be published in the Fall of 2018.

Now that we’re so close to comprehensively understanding Illinois’s postsecondary institutions, it’s critically important that the public continues to support the development of this report card. Every parent wants their children to succeed, but not every parent has a PhD in Statistics. Despite having developed an amazing system, if the ILDS data is not communicated in a way that’s accessible to everyone, then it will miss a critical avenue for increasing transparency and accountability in Illinois public education. Through public hearings, the state can determine what information parents and students are most invested in learning, and how to ensure it’s best understood by the greatest number of people.

This is a unique opportunity to perform an incredible act of service for the students of Illinois. Let’s create a process for getting an A+ on making the information accessible to young adults and their families.

Tyler Washington is a rising senior at Northwestern University.