[Editor's Note: The Project on Student Debt is releasing today its third annual report on the debt of recent college graduates. The report and accompanying website provide average student debt level data for every state and for most four year colleges in the country. In this guest post, Matthew Reed, the report's main author, discusses the limits of this data and suggests steps policymakers can take to make more accurate and timely information available.]
By Matthew Reed
Student debt is up again, according to the data that we at the Project on Student Debt released today. One of the lessons we have learned from putting together these reports for the past three years is just how difficult it is to get timely and accurate information about students' loans. Congress and the next leadership of the U.S. Department of Education could take some simple steps to improve that situation.
For our purposes, the most useful data comes from annual surveys of colleges by college guide publishers such as Peterson's. The utility of this data, however, is limited because so much of the information is missing or unreliable. Colleges self-report and many fail to respond to the survey on an annual basis, resulting in missing or repeated data.
In addition, colleges use different methodologies to calculate these figures, depending on the capabilities of their data systems and the expertise and interest of the staff members responsible for filling the surveys out. While student debt figures for some schools stay the same for years as no one bothers to update them, at other schools, they fluctuate wildly from year to year as staff turn over or new software is used make the latest calculations.
The Department of Education maintains a database tracking students loans -- the National Student Loan Data System (NSLDS). Unfortunately, the Department doesn't make sufficient use of it. At the Project on Student Debt, we believe that expanding the information entered into this system and the reports generated from this system would go a long way toward providing more useful information for policymakers, student borrowers, and the public.