Noncredit Research Collaborative

How Federal Data Shortchange the Community College


Multiple studies show that outcomes, whether they be better degree completion rates or successful short-term workforce training, are negatively affected by inadequate funding (Kahlenberg, 2015). To bolster their case for underfunding, researchers and college advocacy groups produce studies that rely on an important federal dataset–the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS)–which attempts to standardize input and output measures among colleges and make comparisons over time possible. This article is about how the use of this national database can lead to a distorted picture of community colleges that can produce incorrect and possibly counterproductive public policy. IPEDS, or sometimes the way that it is used, shortchanges the community college in several ways. This article will discuss three of them, which result in an undercounting of student enrollment at community colleges and, therefore, either directly or indirectly, have a negative impact on funding. The three problems with common uses of IPEDS data are: (1) measuring enrollments using full-time equivalents (FTEs) rather than headcounts; (2) defining the community college sector in a way that undercounts enrollment; and (3) the exclusion of noncredit course enrollments that makes community colleges look better funded than they really are. Correcting the first two of these would not require colleges to collect more data but the third one would. The article gives brief attention to the first two points, reserving the most attention for the third.