We’re constantly hearing stories about college graduates drowning in student debt. But just as unsettling is the news that American students are falling behind in global rankings when it comes to finishing college and education mobility, according to a report from Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD).
While it signals a need to focus on education policy, a new initiative is paving the way for better planning. States have long had a problem amassing accurate data on students as they move away with families, to pursue higher education or take a new job. But a multi-state pilot project from the the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE), a regional organization comprised of 15 states and the Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands, has revealed a way for more states to collaborate on student outcomes.
Washington, Idaho, Oregon and Hawaii participated in the WICHE project, which analyzed 192,689 students — including public high school graduates of 2005 and public college students from 2005 to 2011 across the four states.
“We’re all looking to educate and retain people in our states so that they can help the economy thrive,” says Peace Bransberger, a senior research analyst at WICHE. “You can only speculate until you have some information about students who have gone beyond your borders after you’ve educated them.”
Sharing cross-state data is no easy feat, especially when it comes to logistical, technical and political challenges such as student privacy. But the project enabled each of the four states to compare student outcomes while also taking note of how many students moved to one of the participating states for higher education or for a job. It also helped officials determine which local labor markets attract out-of-state candidates.

“There isn’t a lot of knowledge about what happens after a student competes (their education) in terms of labor market or employment because most states are relying on their own data only,” says Brian T. Prescott, director of policy research at WICHE.

While each state could have only accounted for around 62 percent using their own data, the multi-state approach allowed them to report on an additional 7 percent, according to Government Technology

The $1.5 million project was backed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and received an additional $5 million grant to expand the program to include at least six other states.

But aside from keeping track of student outcomes, the pilot project could provide educators with the tools for planning future policy. With additional data from other states, more lawmakers could learn about where residents are obtaining degrees or migrating for jobs, according to Paige Kowalski, director of state policy and advocacy for the Data Quality Campaign.

“This kind of data allows you to show them what actually happens or what policy is driving students in a certain direction,” says Andy Mehl, head of Idaho’s Statewide Longitudinal Data System. “It helps them be better informed about the decisions and the repercussions of what they’re doing.”

As parents and lawmakers recognize the urgency to design better education policy, perhaps more cross-state collaboration like the WICHE project could serve as a model in other regions.

MORE: Why Families Are Key to Transforming Education in America