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The Power of Open Education Data

On Tuesday, Vice President Biden, U.S. Education Department Secretary Arne Duncan, and Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Director Richard Cordray hosted a roundtable with college presidents who pledged to provide clear, useful information to all incoming college students and their families, as part of their financial aid package, so that they can “know before they owe.”

On Tuesday, Vice President Biden, U.S. Education Department Secretary Arne Duncan, and Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Director Richard Cordray hosted a roundtable with college presidents who pledged to provide clear, useful information to all incoming college students and their families, as part of their financial aid package, so that they can “know before they owe.” 

The President has said keeping college affordable is a shared responsibility. That means the Federal government continuing to make Pell Grants available for low-income students and keeping loans available and affordable for all students who choose to borrow for college. It means states doing their fair share to fund colleges and universities instead of forcing schools to pass funding cuts onto students in the form of higher tuition. And it means postsecondary institutions innovating to find new ways to get students – including low-income students – across the finish line while keeping their costs down.

But it also means students and families voting with their feet – making choices about where to apply and where to enroll based on information about quality and affordability, such as graduation and loan default rates. That can help consumers get good value for their money, and put some competitive pressure on schools to provide a top-notch education for less.

Technology, data, and entrepreneurs can help with college affordability—as well as help address our national priorities in K-12 education.

That’s why we are excited about the Education Data Initiative, an Administration-wide effort to “liberate” government data and voluntarily-contributed non-government data as fuel to spur entrepreneurship, create value, and create jobs while improving educational outcomes for students. The Education Data Initiative is part of a recently announced series of Open Data Initiatives in energy, health care, public safety, and education to spark new private-sector consumer-facing and business-oriented tools, products, and services – such as mobile apps and websites– all while rigorously protecting personal, proprietary, and national security information.

Led by the U.S. Department of Education, in close partnership with the White House and other agencies, the Education Data Initiative seeks to (1) work with data owners inside and outside of government to make education-related data available, machine-readable, and accessible, while ensuring personal privacy is protected, and (2) collaborate with private-sector entrepreneurs and innovators to ensure they are aware of these existing and newly available digital assets and encourage them to include these data as inputs into their new products, services, and features that can improve student success.

For example, existing Federal databases of higher education information available on (e.g., institutional prices, graduation rates, loan default rates, etc.) can fuel new or improved online services that help students and their families make informed choices about which college to attend, based on indicators of affordability and quality. Similarly, making individual federal financial aid application and award data securely available to applicants and borrowers in machine-readable form promises to help customize and personalize college-choice tools and services. 

The Education Data Initiative will also include efforts to encourage schools and their vendors to enable students to securely download electronic copies of their own transcript and assessment data, which can fuel personalized virtual tutorial offerings and other services to improve student learning.  Making these data available to high-school students, for example, will enable them to create their own personal learning profile and connect to tools and resources to help improve their grades. 

Additionally, the Education Data Initiative will include work to develop a common trust mechanism for schools that want to exchange student data with each other and other qualified parties, and to promote the newly developed Learning Registry—an open-source technical system to help educators and learners use and share digital content—which can help fuel the next generation of educational technology services and tools.

The President has challenged our Nation to have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world, and for every American to receive at least one year of postsecondary education.  College has never been more important, but it's also never been more expensive, and we have to make sure we keep college within reach of all families.

With the Education Data Initiative, we're empowering students with their own data, in a way that has the potential to help them make dramatically better choices about investing in higher education—where to go, how to pay for it, how to manage their debt if they borrow.

For the first time, students who apply for and receive Federal student aid will be able to receive their own data in machine-readable format.  Instead of just seeing their data in a PDF or on a web page, they'll be able to download a simple text file. We're hoping to see the same functionality with the student aid award offers that schools provide students once they're admitted. The President has taken steps to make these letters easier to understand, and the Administration is in the process of finalizing a "shopping sheet" that institutions could adopt to allow students and families to easily compare offers from different institutions.  Financial aid offices could allow students to download the shopping sheet in machine readable format, not just send paper copies that get spread out on the kitchen table.

If innovators and entrepreneurs respond—and the experience with health data and energy data makes us confident they will—students will be able to upload their downloadable federal student aid data and their downloadable financial aid award data from schools to a host of web-based tools that will offer customized scholarship searches, college comparisons, and loan repayment counseling to help them enroll in a school that will bring them across the finish line and prepare them for success in our increasingly competitive global economy.

Todd Park is the US Chief Technology Officer, and Jim Shelton is the Assistant Deputy Secretary for Innovation and Improvement at the U.S. Department of Education.