Higher Education:

Institutions' Reported Data Collection Burden Is Higher Than Estimated but Can Be Reduced through Increased Coordination

GAO-10-871: Published: Aug 13, 2010. Publicly Released: Aug 13, 2010.

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The Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) is the federal government's core postsecondary data collection program. Approximately 6,800 postsecondary schools are required to complete annual IPEDS surveys on topics including enrollment, graduation rates, and finances. As policymakers have sought additional data to increase accountability in postsecondary education, the number and complexity of questions on the IPEDS surveys have increased. GAO was mandated to examine: (1) the time and cost burden for schools completing the IPEDS surveys, (2) options for reducing this burden, and (3) the potential benefits and challenges of collecting additional graduation rate data. To do this, GAO interviewed staff from 22 postsecondary schools, reviewed existing estimates of the IPEDS time and cost burden, interviewed officials at the Department of Education (Education) and Office of Management and Budget, and interviewed higher education associations and higher education software providers.

The IPEDS burden reported by schools to GAO varies widely but was greater than Education's estimates for 18 of the 22 schools interviewed. Over half of these institutions reported time burdens that were more than twice Education's estimates. Schools reported time burdens ranging from 12 to 590 hours, compared with the 19 to 41 hours Education estimated for this group of institutions. Staff experience and school characteristics such as organizational structure appear to affect the burden. Education's official burden estimates may be lower than those reported to GAO because officials rely on potentially outdated baseline estimates and consult with few survey respondents (known as keyholders) about the impact of survey changes. Training, software, and administrative supports can reduce the IPEDS reporting burden and would be enhanced by increased coordination among institutions, Education, and software providers. Education is developing training modules targeting new keyholders, but some keyholders at career and technical schools are unaware of available training, which may be due to challenges Education faces in reaching these types of schools. Campus data systems may also reduce the burden through automated reporting features; however, few schools GAO interviewed use these features due to concerns that they do not always work correctly. One factor contributing to this is the lack of direct and timely coordination between software providers and Education to incorporate changes to the IPEDS surveys. Collecting additional graduation rate data disaggregated by race, ethnicity, and income could be useful but would increase the IPEDS burden. Graduation rates could be used to study achievement gaps, but they are a limited measure because they only account for first-time, full-time students. All 4- and 2-year schools are already required to report some graduation rates disaggregated by race and ethnicity to IPEDS, and staff at all types of schools told GAO they could do so at a modest additional burden. Reporting graduation rates by income is more challenging because income data are available only for the 71 percent of full-time students that apply for federal student aid. Keyholders said calculating graduation rates by income for these students would add a considerable burden by potentially requiring institutions to merge separate student records and financial aid databases. GAO recommends that Education reevaluate official IPEDS burden estimates, communicate IPEDS training opportunities to a wider range of schools, and coordinate with education software providers to help improve the quality and reliability of IPEDS reporting features. Education agreed with GAO's recommendations and plans to address these issues.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To improve the availability of reliable information to Congress and postsecondary institutions about postsecondary institutions' data collection efforts, the Secretary of Education should direct the Commissioner of National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) to reevaluate the official IPEDS burden estimates and establish new baseline estimates as appropriate.

    Agency Affected: Department of Education

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) has developed revised IPED burden estimates that were approved by OMB on June 2, 2011. NCES used a new methodology to estimate the burden. As a result, the average burden estimate increased significantly from 19-41 hours to 50-212 hours.

    Recommendation: To help reduce the reporting burden on postsecondary institutions, the Secretary of Education should direct the Commissioner of NCES to improve how NCES communicates IPEDS training opportunities to a wider range of institutions, particularly smaller career and technical institutions outside of traditional higher education networks.

    Agency Affected: Department of Education

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In FY12, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reported on numerous efforts to expand IPEDS training opportunities beyond traditional associations and to smaller schools. These included: 1) special training announcement emails for all IPEDS workshops sent to all IPEDS keyholders (institutional staff responsible for IPEDS data submission) and targeted emails sent to special populations. Travel grants are also available so that keyholders from smaller institutions with fewer resources can attend; 2) IPEDS training workshops that are co-hosted by another organization. Co-hosting organizations announce the IPEDS workshops to their memberships, but they are open to all IPEDS keyholders, regardless of membership in the co-hosting organization. NCES is expanding the list of co-hosting organizations and states, including organizations such as the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities, the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities, and American Association of Cosmetology Schools, Tribal Colleges, and various state boards higher education departments; 3) independent workshops (no co-hosting organization) in Puerto Rico and Arizona, including one for 2-year institutions; and 4) IPEDS training has become a regular part of the agenda at the FSA Conference. At smaller schools, IPEDS keyholder duties are often performed by the institution's financial aid officer.

    Recommendation: To help reduce the reporting burden on postsecondary institutions, the Secretary of Education should direct the Commissioner of NCES to coordinate with higher education software providers to help enhance the quality and reliability of IPEDS reporting features.

    Agency Affected: Department of Education

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In October 2010, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) released a vendor page within the IPEDS website that includes a list of resources available to software vendor's. This includes links to the IPEDS Data Provider Center which contains survey materials and the data collection schedule, IPEDS training opportunities, and the option to "register" as IPEDS-related vendors and receive email notifications about any new information and resources that are posted.

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