It’s Spring 2021. Does the Federal Government Know Where Its Online Students Are?

It’s Spring 2021. Does the Federal Government Know Where Its Online Students Are?

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Just over one year ago, the COVID-19 pandemic pushed US colleges from coast to coast to close their campuses and complete the remainder of the Spring 2020 term virtually. For many, that period of emergency remote instruction turned from a temporary solution to a yearlong-plus experiment in offering education fully or partially online.

Since the earliest days of the pandemic, the College Crisis Initiative (C2i) at Davidson College has led the national effort to monitor colleges and universities’ responses to this crisis, compiling the largest data repository on institutional reopening and operating plans. Of the roughly 3,000 colleges in their dataset, 43% have remained entirely or primarily remote into Spring 2021—which translates to more than 10 million students attending college online when they may normally have been taking classes in person.

C2i has diligently and speedily updated their data dashboards with each new set of reopening announcements, providing researchers with a treasure trove of information in a time marked by uncertainty and shifting targets. And there has been no shortage of powerful reporting on the lived experiences of students and the challenges faced by colleges at every turn.

Yet more than a full year into the pandemic, one critical entity has fallen behind on collecting and contextualizing higher education data related to the public health emergency: the federal government. That’s a problem, because we know that the extent of COVID-19’s impacts on higher education will not be fully felt for years to come. To monitor long-term trends and identify areas where future policy interventions may be warranted, we’re going to need good, centralized data on shifts in student enrollment before and throughout the course of the COVID-19 period—especially as distance education options continue to grow in popularity post-pandemic for current and prospective students.

Former Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos made clear that she did not believe it was the responsibility of the US Department of Education (Department) to collect data on K-12 school districts’ reopening plans or COVID-19 cases, and she devoted even less attention to providing data on colleges’ modes of instruction. Newly installed Secretary Miguel Cardona, the Biden Administration, and Congress can reverse this trend by making forward-looking policy changes that ensure access to the types of data needed to understand student outcomes in higher education during the post-COVID era. Here are three key steps the Department and Congress should take now to provide clearer information for policymakers, institutions, and prospective students and their families.

Add a flag for distance education status in the National Student Loan Data System.

What it would do: The National Student Loan Data System (NSLDS) is the Department’s national database for federal student financial aid. NSLDS contains records of all federal loans and grants issued to students under Title IV of the Higher Education Act (HEA) throughout their life cycle. The system includes several “flags,” which indicate specific enrollment patterns, matches to existing data records, or issues requiring resolution. To help monitor the future impact of the COVID-19 period on student loans and repayment, the Department should add a flag in NSLDS that shows the enrollment format of federal financial aid recipients as of March 1, 2020 (just prior to the pandemic) and in subsequent reporting periods. In the near term, such a flag will indicate whether the student was enrolled in all distance education or correspondence courses, some distance courses, or no distance courses prior to the pandemic versus after the pandemic, and the data can then be used to generate periodic reports showing the number and percentage of students who were enrolled, withdrew, or completed their credential during the prior period, disaggregated by their level of distance enrollment.

Why it’s needed: While it will take a few years to understand the pandemic’s impact on a full cohort of students, initial data will help shed light on more immediate trends in the context of COVID-19—such as whether students who shifted to distance education status withdrew at notably higher rates at some institutions compared to others and whether significant changes in persistence and completion occurred during the pandemic. Going forward, this flag will also enable institutions, researchers, and policymakers to better understand the impacts of distance education on student outcomes like borrowing, repayment, and post-enrollment earnings, allowing for deeper conversations around value and return on investment across programs and modes of instruction.

How to make it happen: Congress can mandate the addition of reporting flags in NSLDS through legislation, and it may then take several months to a year for servicer contractors, institutions, and the Department to execute the updates to the system. Given the intense challenges the past year has posed for institutions of higher education, such legislation should take care, to the extent feasible, to mitigate imposing new or significant administrative burdens on colleges, including by aligning reporting definitions as closely as possible with the data elements that institutions are already required to report to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).

Update the College Scorecard to provide information on distance education enrollment.

What it would do: The College Scorecard is the Department’s user-friendly college search and comparison tool for students and families, and presents information on net costs, fields of study offered, and student outcomes. Each school’s Scorecard also includes a snapshot of the student body: its undergraduate enrollment, percent of full-time and part-time students, and socio-economic and racial diversity. Adding to those categories a percentage breakdown of the institution’s distance education enrollment would increase transparency and help prospective students better contextualize the experience they may have there as an online, in-person, or hybrid student.

Why it’s needed: While online enrollment had been on the rise for several years before the pandemic, the past year has led many institutions to double down on their distance education offerings. Students may also now be increasingly likely to pursue partial or total distance enrollment options after having gained experience with those modalities over the course of the past year. When making decisions, prospective students should be able to easily find information on the proportion of a college’s student body that is enrolled in distance education at schools that offer a mix of instructional formats. However, the enrollment data currently displayed on the College Scorecard can be misleading. Take, for example, Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU)—a public institution that has a relatively small on-campus student population of around 3,000 students compared to its significantly larger online enrollment of well over 100,000. If you look up SNHU on the College Scorecard, you’ll see its size is listed as “large,” with 80,170 undergraduate students.

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But if you look up SNHU on a different Department tool, the College Navigator, you’ll find a breakdown of undergraduate distance education status showing that the vast majority of those undergrads—93%—are enrolled only in distance education, while just 6% are not enrolled in any distance education.

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While its massive online enrollment makes SNHU a more extreme case than most schools, this is information that students should have at their fingertips when researching college options and considering how in-person or online enrollment might impact their educational experience at a given institution.

How to make it happen: The federal government already collects these data points through the NCES and the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). IPEDS data fuel College Navigator, which in turn serves as the backend mechanism through which most data are displayed on the more user-friendly College Scorecard. In future updates to the Scorecard, the Department can add the percentage breakdown of distance education and in-person students alongside the other statistics on a school’s student body to help prospective students make more informed decisions.

Pass the College Transparency Act.

What it would do: The College Transparency Act (CTA) will fix longstanding flaws in the federal infrastructure for higher education data and provide more complete information on student outcomes by creating a secure student-level postsecondary data system. Critically, that new system will also disaggregate student data by several categories, including distance education status. Gaps in the existing infrastructure mean that federal data fail to capture all students or provide sufficient nuance—for example, standard graduation rates only reflect first-time students who are enrolled full-time (even though many of today’s college students are returning to school and/or attending classes part-time), and post-college earnings data only account for students who received federal financial aid under HEA, excluding nearly 30% of all who enroll. This leaves students and their families to make complex choices about where to go to college with incomplete information about the schools that will serve them best, and leaves colleges with limited data on their program outcomes.

Why it’s needed: The modernized data system created by CTA will give prospective students, institutions, and policymakers access to more comprehensive and accurate information on student enrollment, financial aid and affordability, progression and completion, and post-college employment outcomes. And by requiring data disaggregation for students enrolled in distance education for some, all, or none of their postsecondary experience, CTA will also allow for a fuller understanding of this growing student population that can inform policy and practice going forward.

How to make it happen: CTA, which was recently reintroduced for the 117th Congress, is among the most popular and widely supported bills in the higher education arena. In the 116th Congress, the legislation had 234 co-sponsors in the House—that’s more than half of all representatives—and 36 co-sponsors in the Senate, nearly evenly split between Democrats and Republicans. By passing CTA, Congress will take a significant, bipartisan step to improve how higher education data are collected and used at the federal level.

As enrollment in distance education continues to shift and evolve post-pandemic, the need for more and better information on distance education students will only continue to grow. Updating the NSLDS to flag distance enrollment status, displaying relevant data on the College Scorecard, and passing the College Transparency Act represent three key actions the Department and Congress should take to improve the usability of federal higher education data, enhance clarity around distance education outcomes, and ensure that students, institutions, researchers, and lawmakers alike have access to the type of high-quality, disaggregated data they need to make informed decisions.

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