Federal Policy Proposal Leaves Community College Students with Incomplete Earnings Data

Proposed College Dashboard omits data for students who do not receive federal Title IV aid, skewing the information available to college leaders and students.

College leaders at institutions of all types often cite data-use as a driving factor in developing supports to help more students succeed in higher education and the workforce. And accurate, complete data can help students and families make fully-informed college and career decisions.

Federal policymakers are exploring how high-quality postsecondary data can help with answering critical questions about which programs at which institutions provide an adequate return on investment, and for which students. But the proposed Higher Education Act (HEA) rewrite recently introduced by House Education and Workforce Committee Chairwoman Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) — the PROSPER Act —would force community college students, and leaders, to rely on incomplete information about what they can expect in return for their college investment.

The proposed College Dashboard would only report earnings outcomes for some college students. Students who didn’t receive a federal loan or Pell Grant — roughly 30 percent of all undergraduates across the country — wouldn’t be represented in these data.[1]  

Omitting these students from average earnings data would skew the information we have about how well a college prepares its graduates for the workforce, most notably at community colleges. Only about 62 percent of community college students nationwide receive federal financial aid, compared with 70 percent of all undergraduates (Figure 1). As a result, data wouldn’t be representative of significant portions of the community college student body.

Figure 1. Share of Students Ever Receiving Pell Grants or Federal Loans at Public Two-Year Institutions, 2011–2012

Source: U.S. Department of Education. Using federal data to measure and improve the performance of U.S. institutions of higher education. September 2015, page 26. Retrieved from:

Consider a student trying to determine which community college’s engineering technology program will best prepare her for success after graduation. The available workforce earnings data she sees in the proposed College Dashboard would leave out at least one in three of the programs’ students and would fall short of providing her with critical information to help with deciding where to enroll.

To illustrate how misleading College Dashboard data could be, consider data for the California Community College system: in 2016–17, only about a quarter of students received a Pell Grant or borrowed federal student loans. By only counting students who receive federal aid, the proposed College Dashboard overlooks workforce outcomes for about three in four California community college students.[2] The data are even unrepresentative for institutions where students are more likely to receive federal aid. For instance, at Patrick Henry Community College in Virginia, where 75 percent of students received federal aid in 2016–17, approximately one in four undergraduates would not be represented in the PROSPER Act’s proposed College Dashboard.[3]

To provide students with quality information, national postsecondary statistics must count all students, whether or not they receive federal student aid.[4] And a secure, privacy-protected student-level data network (SLDN)—a policy solution advanced by the bipartisan, bicameral College Transparency Act—would do just that. An SLDN would allow for the calculation of metrics that are currently unavailable and not included in the PROSPER Act’s College Dashboard, such as earnings for students not receiving federal financial aid.

Without accurate and complete earnings data, community college students are unable to make fully-informed college and career decisions. Similarly, college leaders are ill-equipped to create and implement evidence-based policies that ensure equitable access and success for all students. Policymakers should seize this HEA reauthorization to reform postsecondary data policy to count all outcomes, to address equity gaps in our postsecondary system, and to ensure all students can reach their full potential.

Eleanor Eckerson Peters is a research analyst and Amanda Janice Roberson is a senior research analyst at the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP). IHEP is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization committed to promoting higher education access and success for all students, with a special focus on underserved populations. IHEP develops innovative research to guide policymakers and education leaders in addressing our nation’s most pressing education challenges.

[1]U.S. Department of Education. Using federal data to measure and improve the performance of U.S. institutions of higher education. September 2015, page 26. Retrieved from:

[2]IHEP analysis of California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office data. Retrieved from:

[3]IHEP analysis of State Council of Higher Education for Virginia data. Retrieved from:

[4]Roberson, A.J., Rorison, J., & Voight, M. A Blueprint for Better Information: Recommendations for a Federal Postsecondary Student-Level Data Network. October 2017. Retrieved from:

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