It’s not unusual to hear calls for “better data” in the world of education, but better data are expensive. It takes a significant, sustained infusion of resources to determine what information will be collected, coordinate thousands of staff across hundreds of institutions to enter that information, build a database to store it, link it to other databases, and make it available to the public in an understandable way. Is better data worth all that time, trouble, and expense?

At Greater Texas Foundation, we believe the answer is yes. As a grantmaker focused on improving postsecondary preparation, access, persistence, and success for Texas students, we rely on our state’s robust longitudinal education data system to inform our work and support research that aligns with our mission. Read on for three examples of researchers who have made exceptional use of Texas statewide longitudinal data, which is accessible via one of the state’s three Education Research Centers (ERCs).

Dr. Kalena Cortes of Texas A&M University used statewide data to explore how admissions policies affect college application and enrollment patterns for low-income and minority students. She focused mainly on Texas’s “Top 10 Percent” policy, which guarantees automatic admission to any Texas public university for students who graduate in the top 10 percent of their class. Dr. Cortes and her colleagues found that class-rank-based policies like Top 10 Percent significantly increased the representation of low-income and minority students at selective institutions, in part by helping high-performing students recognize they have the potential to succeed at universities they might not otherwise have considered. She found that non-academic factors played a significant role in students’ application and enrollment decisions: low-income students in her sample were more likely to attend schools closer to home, and minority students were more likely to select institutions where they were relatively better represented in the student body, or where their peers had a history of success. The rich data available through the ERC allowed Dr. Cortes to study students across multiple institutions and control for variables that would otherwise bias her models.

At The University of Texas at Dallas, Dr. Rodney Andrews used statewide data housed at the ERC at UT-Dallas to understand how two targeted recruitment programs offered by the state’s flagship institutions affected participants’ college enrollment, persistence, graduation, and earnings. He found that each program, which provided college information, mentoring, and financial aid to high-achieving low-income students, resulted in significant enrollment increases at both flagships, as well as an overall shift in aspirations from two-year to four-year schools. Importantly, Dr. Andrews also traced substantial differences between the long-term impacts of each program. The program with strong, significantly positive effects offered broader, more intensive, more academically-focused services to participants. This study yielded practical implications for decisionmakers interested in designing programs that help vulnerable students to and through college, and it would not have been possible without comprehensive statewide data.

Finally, Dr. James Pustejovsky of The University of Texas at Austin is partway through an evaluation of an innovative mathematics curriculum. A growing number of schools are adopting the Transition to College Mathematics (TCM) course, developed by UT-Austin’s Charles A. Dana Center, to help underprepared high school students develop a foundation for college-level math. Using statewide data, Dr. Pustejovsky will compare outcomes for TCM students with outcomes for students who participated in traditional high school coursework as well as those who participated in a different college preparatory math course. In both cases, he will use an equity lens, exploring how program effects vary by students’ income and race/ethnicity. Without a database containing variables as specific as the exact math courses taken by each student throughout high school, this critical evaluation would not be possible.

These are just three examples of the kinds of questions we can ask — and begin to answer — because our state went through the time, trouble, and expense of investing in “better data.” The benefits to our students will far outweigh the costs.

Allison Pennington is a Programs and Strategy Associate with the Greater Texas Foundation.