Built along interstates to increase access, nestled within office buildings for convenience or in a field to connect with nature’s laboratory, it’s all too easy to pass by classrooms for the mechanical and agricultural arts without realizing the opportunities they offer.

Too often, that’s exactly what happens. These and other programs are seen as last stops, with potential learners unable to find or take advantage of these promising paths to learning and earning.

One reason is this: Training providers aren’t included in easily available data on colleges and universities. It’s high time we fixed that – and aligned education and training data.

Without data, we’re lost

I know firsthand the importance of accurate, timely data. I helped lead what is arguably the national college data model: Florida’s PK-20 Education Data Warehouse. As executive vice chancellor of the Florida College System, I used the state’s student unit record system as an invaluable tool to develop new policies, anticipate student needs, and answer questions.

So it’s no surprise Florida’s colleges win national awards, and its higher education system is ranked the best – they have access to education and workforce data that informs policies and improves practice in real time. In some ways, they’re playing chess while their peers are stuck with checkers.

Through it all, I realized the immense value of the federal Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). IPEDS is the federal data system that collects institution-level data from colleges and universities. Reporting is required for schools that get federal student aid – which makes it comprehensive.

Yet, in the national discourse, IPEDS has been cast as a problem, and many see this dataset for what it is not, rather than what it is. That’s a short-sighted talking point.

Yes, IPEDS is a database about institutions first, and students second. It tells you where a college is located, if it’s public or private, if it’s for-profit or a community college, if it has online offerings, if it has a religious affiliation or programs for veterans, and if admission test scores are required. All of this information, though, is critical to helping millions of students choose the college that best fits them.

Florida’s vaunted Education Data Warehouse doesn’t collect this information. Neither do platforms like the National Student Clearinghouse – a proof of concept for what a national student data system could look like – or the U.S. Department of Labor’s performance reporting system for workforce training programs.

In a world without the Institutional Characteristics Survey of IPEDS, we would be lost. We wouldn’t know much about the 6,063 institutions that make up our nation’s higher education system. Fortunately, we do.

Imagine all the data in one place

Now – imagine if we knew the same information about Eligible Training Providers for federal workforce programs as we do about colleges and universities.

The result would be richer information about those critical engines of opportunity providing training beyond high school. That data would support a true Department of Talent Development, the development of Learner Education Records, and raise awareness of local options to meet workforce demand – quickly.

Most importantly, it would allow the marketplace to better inform students of their vast choices for learning. What options do they have, and what programs would suit them best if they wanted to become wind turbine technicians, physical therapist assistants, or video technicians?

We could start by aligning the best questions on IPEDS’ Institutional Characteristics Survey with Employment Training Provider List data – such as program prerequisites and length. This comprehensive data structure would spur federal, state, and private efforts to inform Americans of many more education and training options in their communities and beyond.

Who knows? It might just be the incentive needed by 40 million students who started college only to leave for jobs right next to the classrooms they don’t even know exist.

[Christopher Mullin, Ph.D., is strategy director of data and measurement for Lumina Foundation, an independent foundation that helps all Americans learn beyond high school. Previously, he served as director of Strong Start to Finish at the Education Commission of the States and as executive vice chancellor of the Florida College System. He is a frequent speaker at conferences.]

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