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Oct. 4, 2022

Empowering Data-Informed Decisions for Students in the U.S. (featuring Erin Velez)

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There are so many organizations that work to support higher education that *aren't* colleges and universities, such as RTI International, and the work they do to help empower data-informed decisions for students.
From the Department of Education's College Scorecard (https://collegescorecard.ed.gov/) to preparing for the College Transparency Act (https://www.congress.gov/bill/117th-congress/senate-bill/839) currently going through the U.S. Congress, their work actively supports students across the country. 

Erin Velez (https://www.linkedin.com/in/erin-velez-82b11543/), Director of Education Research at RTI International (https://www.rti.org/), shares how she and the team at RTI are working to give students the higher edge when choosing a college or university. 

Join us as we discuss:

  • RTI’s impartial role in higher education transparency policies (3:49)

  • What the College Transparency Act means for student-level data networks (SLDN) (10:49)

  • Prepping for the launch of a Federal SLDN (15:30)

Check out these resources we mentioned during the podcast:

To hear this interview and many more like it, subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or our website or search for The Higher Edge in your favorite podcast player.


[00:00:00]Welcome to 

[00:00:08] Announcer:The Higher Edge, a podcast for the brightest minds in higher education. Hear from the change makers and rulebreakers that are driving meaningful, impactful change for colleges and universities across the country from improving operations to supporting student success. These are the stories that give you, "The Higher Edge".

[00:00:30]And now your host, Brendan Aldrich 

[00:00:34] Brendan Aldrich:hey everyone, and welcome to The Higher Edge. I'm Brendan Aldrich and I'm here today with Erin Velez, who is Director of Education Research for R T I International. An organization that was founded in 1958 as an independent nonprofit research institute now headquartered in North Carolina.

[00:00:50]Rti, uh, international focuses on performing in. Objective research for clients literally around the world. Aaron, welcome and thanks so much for joining us here on the Higher Edge.[00:01:00] 

[00:01:01] Erin Velez:Thank you so much for having me. I'm excited to be here. 

[00:01:03] Brendan Aldrich:Brendan. Hey, Aaron. Even though RTI does a lot of work in the education space, it's possible that many listeners that are working on the grounded institutions around the country might not be familiar with your organization.

[00:01:15]Can you give us a little bit of background on RTI and your work in. 

[00:01:19] Erin Velez:rt, I is a pretty large company actually. Um, we have almost 6,000 employees and we work kind of in every, you know, area of research. So we have folks that do healthcare research and with the environment and food insecurity and international development, you name it, we probably do research on it.

[00:01:36]Um, when I started r I, the tagline was, Improving the human condition by turning knowledge into practice, and that's always really stuck with me, is a great way to describe what we do at rti. So, you know, we, um, try to improve the lives of people by using research to change the world. And so, um, it's a,[00:02:00]it's a good place to work.

[00:02:02]Um, so I work in the domestic education group. Uh, we also have a international education group, but in domestic education, a large part of our portfolio of the work we do, um, is some large contracts we have with both the Department of Education and the national science found. And through those, uh, we conduct education surveys.

[00:02:23]We collect education data, uh, and we do this on kind of every kind of level of education. So we have some studies that look at middle school students and high school students, post-secondary students, um, and even graduate students. After we collect the data and we kind of clean and process it, then we actually make it publicly a.

[00:02:41]So students, families, researchers, policy makers, can use the data. Um, of course we remove all the pii, so that's not a concern. And there's a couple of different ways folks can access. Um, all the Department of Ed data we collect. Um, one is through, um, data labs, so anyone can go to the data lab website. Um,[00:03:00]it's powered by the Department of Education and um, it's basically.

[00:03:04]Online data analysis tools, so you can, all the data's kind of loaded in there and you can use the interface to create tables and, you know, um, generate descriptive statistics or regressions or anything like that so folks can access the data that way. Uh, we also release a number of reports that are really statistic heavy.

[00:03:22]So if you want to know how many college students are in the United States, or how many of them use financial aid or how much do they. Um, you can do that from one of our reports, and then if you're a researcher who needs access to individual level data to do some kind of original research, um, you know, we make that available to, uh, users with a restricted use license as well.

[00:03:42] Brendan Aldrich:Nice. And now when you talk about working with the Department of Education, some people might assume that RTI could be more of, uh, a lobby or an advocacy organization, but it's it's not really. 

[00:03:54] Erin Velez:No, it's not at all. And in fact, we, being impartial and being unbiased is[00:04:00]kind of the, a major core of rti. So we don't lobby, we don't advocate for policy.

[00:04:05]All we try to do is produce research that others can use to make informed decisions. Um, Andre and I can give you an example. So one of the projects I work. Yeah, it's the College Scorecard. So that's a website at the Department of Education where you can look up any college you want and compare statistics on colleges and try to understand how they vary.

[00:04:26]Um, and there's a lot of really good information there. So you can look up, you know, the average amount of debt students have students take when they go to colleges. You can look up average earnings coming out of different schools, um, and you can look that up separately by Major cuz we. You know, earnings vary widely across majors, and so the purpose of the website isn't to try to get everyone to be a STEM major as they make the most money, or to get no one to go to a for-profit school or to anything like that.

[00:04:52]The purpose is to give people data so they can make more informed college-going decisions. Hey, for everyone 

[00:04:58] Brendan Aldrich:listening, hang tight. We're[00:05:00]gonna take a quick break to hear from our sponsor and we'll be back in just one minute. 

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[00:06:05] Brendan Aldrich:Thanks so much for listening to our sponsor. Let's get back to the show. You know, I love that RTI doesn't really seem to act like a traditional, what you might think of like a profit-based consultancy. I imagine that probably shapes the way that you approach the work that you do as. 

[00:06:20] Erin Velez:Yeah, it definitely does, and I would say with almost all of the work I do at RTI and the original research I conduct myself, I center almost all the work I do on this idea that there's real significant information barriers when students are trying to go to college.

[00:06:38]So college is probably one of the most expensive things anyone buys in their lifetime besides maybe a home. It's a big decision and students I think, often don't have the right information to really choose between schools and really understand the ramifications of. The school they choose or the amount of debt they take or the major they[00:07:00]choose in terms of their lifelong earnings as 

[00:07:02] Brendan Aldrich:opposed to thinking about going to school because, uh, that's where my parents went, or this is where my friends are going to be able to, to have more of that information to decide if that school is right for what they're trying to do.

[00:07:13] Erin Velez:Exactly. And there's a lot of reasons people go to college and sometimes it is you go to college for the experience of it and sometimes, you know, a certain school is, is ripe for that and. I'm not saying everyone should be thinking about earnings or, or thinking about kind of what they're gonna Sure. The return of their degree.

[00:07:29]But I think, you know, in studies when we ask folks why did you go to college? Overwhelmingly the answer is to get a better job, to make more money, to have a better career. And so if that is something you're prioritizing with your degree, you kind of want that information when you're choosing between colleges, cuz there's huge variation in um, you.

[00:07:50]The returns to a college degree, depending on the type of school you go to and what you major in. You know, when I talk to adults and I, you know, ask them, um, you know, do you wish you[00:08:00]had gone, you know, done something differently in your college going, do you wish you had gone to a different school or majored in something differently?

[00:08:06]You know, almost everyone says yes, you know, and I understand that hindsight's 2020 and so we all like look back and be like, oh, I should have done that differently. But I think this is something different that I think almost everyone, you know, Yeah, maybe I would've majored in something differently or gone to a less expensive school or gone to a higher quality school or something like that.

[00:08:25]And so part of the issue is that people just really don't have good data when they're trying to decide what they wanna do. And so they're making the decision, the absence of data, which can cause them to make choices that aren't actually the best for them in the long. 

[00:08:40] Brendan Aldrich:and being well informed student choice is such a critical aspect of deciding what you're going to do and what you're going to study in education.

[00:08:48]Now, you and I have talked about your background a little bit. Can you talk about, you've always been very focused on economics, but what part and how you're gonna focus that study changed a fair bit as you were going through your studies. Is that right? .[00:09:00]Yes. 

[00:09:00] Erin Velez:So I've always loved economics. I love math, I love data.

[00:09:04]My BA is in economics. I have a master's degree in economics. I have a PhD in economics. So I, I was focused on the field of economics, but actually, When, when I got to grad school, I didn't actually know what I wanted to do specifically in economics. I was in a intro or mid-level microeconomics course, just a standard course everyone takes, and the professor who was Sarah Turner, I'll give a shout out to her, the University of Virginia.

[00:09:30]She ended up being my thesis advisor, and I have a lot to think for her. She taught this course and she does. Of education. And so she gave a lot of examples in the class about education examples and I kept thinking, gosh, using economics, which really is just an analytical toolbox. So you can, once you learn economics, that's one of the things I love about it.

[00:09:48]You can study any kind of data you want, you know, but using economics and applying it to education just seems so crucial. You know, you can use economics. Study how[00:10:00]airlines set, you know, their tickets, , you know, the airfare or um, competition in the athletic shoe market or anything you want, but using economics to help more kids go to college, more kids complete college.

[00:10:11]More kids be able to afford college and earn a degree that's going to help them. Have a good living afterwards. That just seems like such a crucial application of it. So after her class, I was hooked, um, and I knew I was gonna use economics to study education data from here on out. It's 

[00:10:28] Brendan Aldrich:fantastic. And I know there's so many stories of, of running into that one, uh, professor, that, one instructor that mm-hmm.

[00:10:34]that really manages to make you look at something and go, wow, that's, no, there it is. That's, that's where I'm going. Uh, that's fantastic. Well, you know, as now as a director of education research, , uh, especially working at the, at the level you are, it means that you have to be really aware of legislation that's related to education that's being considered on Capitol Hill.

[00:10:53]In fact, I think there's currently a piece of legislation going through Congress that's a particular interest. Can you share more details?[00:11:00] 

[00:11:01] Erin Velez:Yeah, sure. So right now there's a lot of talk about the College Transparency Act, and so what the College Transparency Act would do is it would create a federal student level data.

[00:11:11]right now, every institution in the country submits data to the Department of Education every year, but it's aggregate at their school level. So you know, aggregate information about completion rates or the percentage of students who are black or Hispanic, or the percentage of students who receive a Pell Grant.

[00:11:25]And while that information is helpful at knowing about schools, It's hard for individual students to really see themselves in them. So, you know, completion rates are often first time full-time students. But what if I'm a transfer student? Or what if I'm not going full-time? Or what if I want to know about people from my economic background or my race or my major, or something like that.

[00:11:44]And so what a federal student level data network would do is instead of submitting aggregate information, every institution would submit student level. Every single year, and with a student level data set, you can calculate completion rates and earnings and[00:12:00]financial aid, all of these really important metrics for very specific groups of people so they can see themselves in the data and see what are the chances that I complete, or how much am I likely to make, um, in my specific situation.

[00:12:12] Brendan Aldrich:That's really fascinating it. Now, there are a number of states I know that have a statewide student longitudinal data system, and of course there's the National Student Clearinghouse. Do you think something like a federal level student longitudinal data network would replace those systems or the needs for those kinds of systems?


[00:12:31] Erin Velez:Brennan, you are never gonna hear me say we have too much education data we don't need anymore. So, no, I think more data is always better and. They serve different roles. States are always gonna need state level data to make state level policy decisions. And actually a lot of states that have student longitudinal data systems, they have post-secondary data, but they also merge in K to 12 data and, um, you know, workforce data.

[00:12:56]So they have this whole longitudinal pipeline of data that's really unhelpful[00:13:00]for making informed decision making at the state level. So I think states are always gonna have a need to collect their own data. In addition, you know, the national student clearing. Serves a, a, you know, a vital role to institutions in providing data for them.

[00:13:12]And I think that role is still gonna continue. So I think the federal student level data network would just be an additional, incredibly useful data source. So now I just wanna say that because RTI is an impartial research organization, we're not. Advocating for the College Transparency Act or Student Level Data Network, but we really take the position that if it passes, if this becomes law and there is a federal student level data network, we want it to be done well, you know, we want to maximize the benefit of such a system.

[00:13:41]So, um, it has, you know, the most utility it can to students and families and research and policy makers, and we wanna reduce the burden. We wanna make sure there's you. Important privacy protections in place and the reduce the burden on the institutions, we're gonna have to submit the majority of the data for it.

[00:13:57]And so because of that, RTI i's[00:14:00]been, um, trying to lay kind of the groundwork for, um, how could an s sldn be designed, how could it be implemented? And start thinking about kind of some of those thorny questions that are gonna need to be addressed, um, at the beginning of creating a student level data network so that.

[00:14:15]You know, if legislation creating a steel level data network does become law, um, there'll kind of be this foundational groundwork for the Department of Ed to start with. 

[00:14:24] Brendan Aldrich:I know that I grew up with that concept from my parents of any job worth doing is doing well. And it sounds like that's exactly absolutely what we're talking about here, which is, and it's great because actually what people might not know is right now, without that legislation having passed the Department of Education can't even begin discussions on.

[00:14:43]That kind of system might do, or, or what it might need to be able to, to meet those kinds of needs. 

[00:14:48] Erin Velez:You're right. There is currently a ban on a federal student level data network. So the department of education is prohibited for planning or thinking or preparing for one. So if legislation creating, um, a[00:15:00]federal student level data network passes, all of a sudden they will need to hit the ground running without any preparation, which is part of the reason we've started to.

[00:15:08]Think through some of those beginning, uh, decision points for 

[00:15:10] Brendan Aldrich:them. That's great. That's really fascinating. And I'm, uh, it'd be really interesting to watch the legislation move through Congress, uh, especially when it's going to create this kind of opportunity that's never really existed before for the Department of Ed.

[00:15:22]Clearly there's a lot of work and planning that you and the R t I team have been doing in relation to, uh, the College Transparency Act and its progress through Congress. So tell me, when you start tackling, uh, a, a challenge like this one, how do, how do you even begin? Because there has to be a lot of planning.

[00:15:39]and work that goes into gathering this kind of information or understanding what might be the needs for this federal student longitudinal data network. Tell me a little bit about how you and the R T I team even got started and sort of what your progress has been as you've been shaping this initiative.

[00:15:56] Erin Velez:Yes, it has been daunting. It is hard to know where to[00:16:00]begin. We have the decision of to start. What is gonna go into a federal student level data network? You know, what's gonna be the content or how is it gonna be built? And so what we decided to tackle first was what's gonna go into it? So we started by talking to stakeholders.

[00:16:15]We talked, we had a listening tour where we talked to folks who work at state data systems, who at institutions who collect institution data researchers, folks at the federal government. To try to understand what needed to go into a student level data network. And so we ended up holding a series of forums where we brought in a bunch of experts and asked them questions to provide feedback on what they recommend.

[00:16:39]Um, and the purpose of the forums wasn't to come to consensus and make any decisions, but just to, uh, surface questions and areas that needed further consideration. The first forum we held was about the specific variables that we thought should be included in astute level data. And then the next two forums had to do with the actual submission[00:17:00]process.

[00:17:00]How are institutions going to submit the data? How frequently in what form? Details like that. 

[00:17:06] Brendan Aldrich:As well as about sort of what challenges exist in the types of submission practices that they've, they've experienced before when they're submitting data to state or federal government agencies. 

[00:17:15] Erin Velez:Right, exactly.

[00:17:17]And you know, I think there's a lot of room for. lowering the burden on institutions as they have to submit this amount of data and creating a value add for them. You know, what can institutions get out of this system that really makes them invested in it? And, um, excited to contribute to it. So those were all factors we really, um, thought about.

[00:17:38]And then after we felt like we had a good handle on the content of the system, what the content was gonna be, and some ideas for how it could be submitted, we decided to turn to the next piece. , what is the architecture of this thing? Like what is, what is the structure that we're putting this data into?

[00:17:53]And so our fourth forum, um, we hired a series of experts to kind of develop some[00:18:00]straw man plans. These are just some examples of how this thing could be developed. And then we had a forum where we brought in a bunch of experts and had them react to the plans. What really spoke to them is strengths and weaknesses.

[00:18:11]What are additional areas con of concern? And again, without the purpose of the purpose wasn't to make a specific recommendation, but to start the conversation and be like, here are three different options. Sure. They all have strengths and 

[00:18:22] Brendan Aldrich:benefit. , which also I would imagine gives you a handle on to some extent cost.

[00:18:27]Knowing, knowing how something can be built, uh, will give you some idea of how much it may cost to build it that way. 

[00:18:33] Erin Velez:Yes. Cost is a question. Whenever we tell folks we're working on the federal student level data network, they ask , this is a question the department and a lot of folks wanna know about it.

[00:18:43]It's a question that's hard to tackle cuz they're so unknowns and the current legislation isn't very prescriptive in terms of the, um, design and architecture of a system. But I. You know, by sketching out these three possible plans, that kind of, um, gives us a lot more traction. And that's actually kind of where we're going.

[00:18:59]That's like[00:19:00]the future of RTI i's work, is really trying to think about costing something like this out and understanding how much it would cost to build a system like this. Aaron, one of the 

[00:19:09] Brendan Aldrich:things we'd like to share with listeners on this show is to have our guests give, uh, a story or a piece of advice that they can use to advance their own work or even just the way that they look at or think about things now, is there something that you have that you might share with our listeners to give them a little bit of that higher edge?

[00:19:28] Erin Velez:Absolutely. So something that motivates me in almost all of the work I do is thinking about my husband when he was deciding whether to go to college. So my husband is the son of two immigrants who didn't go to college themselves, and he went to a high school where less than 10% of the graduates go on to any post-secondary education, let alone a bachelor's.

[00:19:49]So there's very little college counseling happening there. And so he wasn't getting information on how to choose a college from school, and he wasn't getting it at home. So my husband[00:20:00]thought I should just go to the most expensive school. I get into , you know, in most aspects of life. Price is a proxy for quality.

[00:20:07]So his thought was, oh, the most expensive school is probably the best. And so he ended up going to a, a very small private school in Pennsylvania that didn't have a lot of money to give out in financial aid. So he took out a lot of loans and you know, he lived in New York state, and New York State has some great public universities.

[00:20:25]And so as a, you know, high Achiev. Low income student in state, he could have gone to a number of public schools in New York that would've been cheaper and higher quality and he just didn't know. And so, you know, I think about my husband a lot because, you know, if this happened, if this was a situation he found himself in and he made this decision that didn't end up serving him that well, I think about how many other people must be in this situation where they're not getting great advice at home, they're not getting great advice at school, and they're making that decision.

[00:20:57]Buy some metric that they come up with, like my husband, the most[00:21:00]expensive one. Um, and that doesn't end up serving them. So giving that kind of student, you know, I'm thinking back to the, my husband se his 17 year old self, thinking back on what it must have been like and what information, if he had only had, it would've informed his decision making and his what motivates me.

[00:21:15] Brendan Aldrich:Love the motivation behind the way that you look at and, and approach your work. So a Aaron, first of all, thank you so much for coming on the show and sharing your experience with us. For our listeners, we've been talking with Aaron Velez, who is a director of Education Research for R T I International, a nonprofit consultancy that does quite a bit of work within the education space and for the Department of Education.

[00:21:37]Aaron, if listeners would like to reach out to you with questions about today's episode or to continue the conversation, what's the best way for them to reach out? Yes, I'm 

[00:21:46] Erin Velez:al I'm always excited to hear from folks. So, uh, the best way to reach me is email, and it's just eva rti.org. So I look forward to connecting with anyone.

[00:21:55] Brendan Aldrich:And that's Eva, e v e l e[00:22:00]z@rti.org. Yep. Aaron, such a pleasure to have you on the show. Thanks again for coming on and being a guest with us on the higher edge. And for everyone listening, I'm Brendan Aldrich and we'll talk. 

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