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SU president to testify today on Capitol Hill

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Shenandoah University President Tracy Fitzsimmons

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By Kim Walter - kwalter@nvdaily.com

Shenandoah University President Tracy Fitzsimmons is speaking to the House of Representatives this morning about federal data's role in higher education.

Fitzsimmons, who has been president of the school since 2008 and is a member of the board of directors of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, is one of four speakers who will testify to the Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Training. The hearing, titled "Assessing College Data: Helping to Provide Valuable Information to Students, Institutions and Taxpayers," will take place at 10 a.m.

In 2008, the Higher Education Act was reauthorized as an effort to increase institutions' collection and submission of data to the federal government. Thursday's hearing will allow the subcommittee to look at what data the government is collecting.

"We would all agree that good data helps inform good decisions, whether that be in the classroom or in Congress," Fitzsimmons said Wednesday. "There is less agreement in defining 'good' data, and deciding when enough is enough."

While Fitzsimmons said she agreed that the collection, recording and reporting of data is an additional cost to taxpayers and schools, she said she doesn't have a problem with that "when it serves the students well."

A change to the data requirements would have colleges and universities, public and private, collect the same data across the board.

"There is an incredible diversity of academic programs offered across the nation, and there are a lot of different types of students who want and need to be served by higher education," she said. "However, it's not clear that a common data set can address the needs and interests of all students."

Fitzsimmons said that students consider many different factors when trying to choose an institution, and while some reasons can be measured, others are not so easy to put into data points.

"One student may look for a highly Christian institution, or maybe one with a good pass rate for the nursing board. Maybe one wants a school with lots of international students or a high graduation rate. Some students want to go to an environmentally sensitive campus, while there are the students who were home schooled and just want to know that they'll be be comfortable," she said.

Often, students will visit and take tours of schools to get a better feel of the campus, Fitzsimmons noted, but there are also a good number of students who make higher education decisions based on their financial situations.

"Institutions put out a sticker-price for what their tuition is, but a new student might not realize that a lot of students don't pay the full price," she said. "A huge number of students at SU are on financial aid."

In a similar comparison, Fitzsimmons said that a college could advertise a certain student-to-teacher ratio, but that data doesn't tell students everything they need to know about what they want in a school.

"Data points don't tell the entire story," she said. "For graduation rate purposes, a university could just accept wealthy students with 4.0 GPAs because there's no risk factor there. But high risk students deserve an opportunity at higher education, too."

While she said she isn't nervous about her testimony on the topic, she is excited, "as long as it's not too partisan."

Overall, Fitzsimmons plans to ask Congress to be cautious when considering the implementation of data requirements that could "make it more difficult for colleges to give at-risk students a chance; alter the very nature of higher education - away from emphasizing independent thought and creative problem-solving, and toward equating value with financial return; and alter the fundamental role of the federal government in higher education - essentially federalizing what has been a pluralistic, local and entrepreneurial network."

A live webcast of the hearing will be available. For more information, go to www.edworkforce.house.gov.

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