Gates Foundation urges new priorities for higher ed data systems and digital learning


Stakeholders in America’s higher education system need to put greater national priority around digital learning innovations and more robust data sharing networks, according to a new strategy document from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The bridge to productive opportunities for millions of U.S. students has become “too narrow and too hard to navigate, with a toll that is too high,” the foundation said.

The foundation’s recommendations are contained in a new report advocating for a combination of technology and incentive strategies aimed at attacking “persistent attainment gaps” that “threaten higher education’s ability to meet societal and workforce needs.”

The foundation specifically called for a new national commitment to improving postsecondary data and data systems.

Specifically it argued for measures to:

  • Increase the data capacity of institutions to integrate their own systems across the campus, using state-of-the-art technology. The goal would be to promote greater use of data to guide academic and fiscal decision-making by leaders, faculty and staff; enable more efficient reporting to state and national entities; and frame meaningful state-level goals for postsecondary attainment.
  • Continue to develop robust state data systems that connect disparate higher education systems within and across states, including non-public institutions, and improve linkages between higher education, K-12, and workforce data. This would support the timely and safe exchange of data for decision-making by educators and policymakers.
  • Develop a comprehensive national data system or exchange that would expand coverage and data quality by collecting performance metrics for all students in all institutions. Such a system or exchange would also alleviate reporting burden and reduce duplication by building upon existing state and national data collections. This would include revising data privacy and security protocols to ensure compliance with state and federal laws, as well as accepted standards and practices in the field.

The foundation also urged greater attention around the use of new digital learning and technology-enabled advising tools for students.

“Many low-income and first-generation students face the hurdle of passing
introductory general education courses offered in large lecture halls with hundreds of
students. Research shows that powerful new teaching and learning tools can help educators
tailor content to reflect students’ strengths and needs,” the report said.

The technical recommendations were part of broader set of strategies it proposed that included a call for incentives for campuses to adopt and integrate solutions to lower the barriers to students’ success.

Among other specific recommendations, the report called for greater use of data to highlight where students are slipping through cracks and to measure the effectiveness of solutions.

Read: Ten takeaways on what students face on journey through college

It also urged federal, state and education officials to work towards “a national strategy for gathering, reporting and using key performance measures that reflect the experiences and outcomes of all college students, especially returning and transfer students, who are too often rendered invisible in current data systems.

While the report acknowledged that leading institutions and organizations have made progress in identifying key performance indicators, it argued more must be done to streamline data gathering and reporting efforts.

The foundation’s report also took aim at the difficulties students face filling our FAFSA forms to qualify for financial aid as one of the overall financial challenges students must overcome to attain a higher education.

It also faulted the challenges students encounter, once in school, in getting remedial help.

“For too many students, the road to and through college is anything but clear, and is filled with detours and off-ramps,” the foundation said, noting that action is needed soon.

It cited one forecast suggesting the nation will need 11 million more workers with postsecondary education by 2025 than the nation’s higher education system is currently on course to produce.