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How Open Is University Data?

States should push public universities to adopt open data policies.

Many states now support open data, or data that’s made freely available without restriction in a nonproprietary, machine-readable format, to increase government transparency, improve public accountability and participation, and unlock opportunities for civic innovation. To date, 10 states have adopted open data policies, via executive order or legislation, and 24 states have built open data portals. But while many agencies have joined the open data movement, state colleges and universities have largely ignored this opportunity. To remedy this, policymakers should consider how to extend open data policies to state colleges and universities.

There are many potential benefits of open data for higher education. First, it can help prospective students and their parents better understand the value of different degree programs. One way to control rising higher ed costs is to create more informed consumers. The feds are already pushing for such changes. President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan called for schools to make more information publicly available about the costs of obtaining a college degree, and the White House launched the College Scorecard, an online tool to compare data about the average tuition cost, size of loan payments and loan default rate for different schools.

But students deserve more detailed information. Prospective students should be able to decide where to attend and what to study based on historical data like program costs, percentage of students completing the program and how long they take to do so, and what kind of earning power they have after graduating.

Second, open data can aid better fiscal oversight and accountability of university operations. In 2014, states provided about $76 billion in support for higher ed, yet few colleges and universities have adopted open data policies to increase the transparency of their budgets. Contrast this with California cities like Oakland, Palo Alto and Los Angeles, which created online tools to let others explore and visualize their budgets. Additional oversight, including from the public, could help reduce fraud, waste and abuse in higher education, save taxpayers money and create more opportunities for public participation in state budgeting.

Third, open data can be a valuable resource for producing innovations that make universities a better place to work and study. Large campuses are basically small cities, and many cities have found open data useful for improving public safety and optimizing transportation services. Universities hold much untapped data: course catalogs, syllabi, bus schedules, campus menus, campus directories, faculty evaluations, etc. Creating portals to release these data sets and building application programming interfaces to access this information would give developers direct access to data that students, faculty, alumni and other stakeholders could use to build apps and services to improve the college experience.

State policymakers are best positioned to push colleges and universities to embrace open data. In fact, many existing transparency efforts are the result of state laws. For example, Georgia publishes the salaries of all government employees, including faculty and staff at public universities, and Texas passed 2009 legislation requiring universities to make available online information such as curricula vitae of instructors, syllabi and departmental budgets.

While some schools may be reluctant to expose their inefficiencies and inadequacies to the public, states that adopt open data policies sooner will have a jump on fixing these problems and improving how they report data. This may pay off in the future if Obama’s proposal to reallocate federal student aid to the best performing schools is adopted. For example, a group of universities partnered with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Carnegie Corp. to create the Student Achievement Measure, a more detailed way to assess educational outcomes than the federally tracked graduation rates, which overlook transfer students.

Higher ed suffers from many ailments, and open data is no panacea. But better access to data will help diagnose and treat these problems, and better position colleges to adapt to challenges ahead.