Feds miscount online students

How many students are learning online? The federal Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, or IPEDS,  is unreliable, concludes a study by the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies and consultant Paul Hill.

“After billions of dollars spent on administrative computer systems and billions of dollars invested in ed-tech companies, the U.S. higher education system is woefully out of date and unable to cope with major education trends such as online and hybrid education, flexible terms and the expansion of continuing and extended education,” Hill and Russ Poulin, deputy director of research and analysis for WCET, write in a summary of their findings.

. . . “It’s shocking when you think about two things,” Hill said in an interview with Inside Higher Ed. “We’re moving more and more in this country to talking about data, scorecards, holding colleges accountable. It’s this whole culture of data-driven accountability, but we’re not ready.”

While the most recent Babson Group survey estimated 7.2 million online students in fall 2012, IPEDS counted only 5.5 million, notes Inside Higher Ed. 

IPEDS is notorious for miscounting community college students, writes Matt Reed, the Community College Dean. The federal data system is designed for 18- to 22-year-old full-time, dorm-dwelling students supported by their parents. It doesn’t do well with adults.

It shouldn’t matter whether a student makes progress in a regular semester, an accelerated semester, or even an intersession. With competency-based programs starting to catch on, the entire ‘semester’ edifice is making less sense anyway.

We shouldn’t conflate stopping out with dropping out, as the current system does. Students who need to work full-time while going to school often have to take time off along the way . . . The trend towards “stackable” credentials is based on an overdue recognition that students move in and out of college for economic reasons, and it’s better to give them something useful before they go. But in the current data, those stopouts count as attrition, and are held against us.

Community colleges should be judged on how they help students learn something useful in the time — and aid — they’ve got, writes Reed.  If IPEDS can’t adapt, perhaps it should go the way of the dinosaurs and be replaced by a better system.