Dynarski argues for better educational attainment data in Brookings report

March 13, 2015

Susan Dynarski recently co-authored “How can we track trends in educational attainment by parental income? Hint: not with the Current Population Study,” posted March 12 by the Brookings Institution.

With Matthew M. Chingos of Brookings, Dynarski strongly argues that the methods currently used to measure educational gaps between the socioeconomically rich and poor are inadequate. “Addressing gaps in educational attainment by family income, which exist even among similarly prepared students, is one of the most significant challenges facing policymakers concerned about income inequality and socioeconomic mobility,” she writes. “Are we closing the gap in educational attainment between those who grew up in rich and poor families? … The currently available data are simply not up to answering those questions.”

Although the pair compliment the Current Population Survey’s (CPS) capacity to help “track educational attainment of the population on an annual basis,” they explain that the survey fails to differentiate these populations by parental income and “[t]he federal government releases such data only every ten years – far too infrequent to guide policy and gauge progress.” Dynarski and Mingos lament the lack of current information: “We are now three years behind in knowing whether we are making progress (or regress) in closing this gap, and it will be several more years before updated data are made available.”

Dynarski and Mingos suggest the federal government take a more active role in helping close this gap. “The federal government could solve this problem at low cost by supplementing surveys with administrative data. The CPS records of young adults could be linked to administrative data on their parents’ income held by the Internal Revenue Service or Social Security Administration. Or, the IRS could release a data series on college attendance by family income, since they have collected data on college attendance (though not graduation) since the late 1990s. This information could be calculated for the nation as a whole as well as for individual states. Finally, NCES could conduct its longitudinal studies more often but with less voluminous surveys.”

Susan Dynarski is a professor of public policy at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, and a professor of education at the University of Michigan's School of Education. She is co-founder and co-director of the Ford School’s Education Policy Initiative, which engages in applied, policy-relevant research designed to improve overall educational achievement and outcomes.