The Passing of a Student Aid Giant: Remembering Lutz Berkner

By Dr. Watson Scott Swail, CEO, Educational Policy Institute

As many people know, I am passionate about the pathways to and through higher education, and I follow the data with excruciating detail. Three letters—BPS—mean more to me than most people: Beginning Postsecondary Student. This is the name of the US Department of Education survey of 19,000 students attending mostly US institutions who are followed for a six-year period, providing us with the most detailed and accurate information of the college pathway and experience this world knows. For those of us who have created a career based on student retention and success, this information is critical to our existence. This is not an overstatement, and I quite literally wait with bated breath for upcoming releases of BPS and NPSAS data.

Thus, it was with great sadness this week when I received an email from my colleague Colleen O’Brien, formerly of The Pell Institute, regarding the passing of Lutz Berkner of MPR Associates.

For many of our readers, Berkner’s name may not ring a loud bell. But you know him, or at least his work. Since the mid-1990s, Lutz served as the lead analyst who worked on BPS data for MPR, under contract to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). He was, for all purposes, the guru of student pathways in higher education. With support from the talented team at Berkeley-based MPR, Lutz was able to clean and prepare the data so that all of us on the “outside” could make sense of six years of often-complex bits and bytes.

When we talk of the four- and six-year graduation rates for universities or the two- and three-year rates for community colleges, we are using Lutz’ work. When we talk about the swirling of students in higher education, a term made popular by Cliff Adelman, we are using Lutz’ competent work. Working long and arduous hours at times, Lutz and the MPR gang carefully cleaned thousands of data files so that the corresponding analysis made sense. No easy feat by any means.

Today, due in large part to his efforts, we now access BPS and other data with a click of a button. If we want to see how Pell students do at certain institutions, we can. In seconds.

To those of us in the student aid field, we remember Lutz as much for his presentations at the annual Student Financial Aid Research Network (SFARN) Conference. This was typically our “first look” at the new data and was, of course, “uncitable” until the Feds officially adjudicated their reports. But perhaps more interesting to us, if not most entertaining, were Lutz’ questions of other presenters that were using “his” data. I can say from experience that taking a question from Lutz was nothing less than daunting. Imagine the situation: you have just presented data that he knows better than anyone else in the world—quite literally. And Lutz would question us already knowing the answer, but to see if we knew the answer. We didn’t always. Lutz was polite, but he also would be direct enough to tell you “that’s wrong.” He kept us on our toes.

But Lutz had a great sense of humor to go with his great knowledge and intellect. And a great laugh.

Above all, he loved his family. Only about six years ago, Lutz came up to me and gave me a cassette (yes, a cassette!). Lutz knew I was a “recovering” musician and also had younger kids. His daughter, Laurie Berkner, is a well-known children’s musician (click here to see) and he wanted to share this with me. It was very sweet and meant a lot to me and the others with whom he shared her work. Lutz was extraordinarily proud of his daughter and wanted the world to know.

In a week where there is a lot to talk about in financial aid, higher education, and student success, this is what matters right now. Lutz, we wish you the best. Thank you for everything. You will be missed.

 

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About Educational Policy Institute

The Educational Policy Institute is a Washington, DC-based research think tank on education and the social sciences. EPI conducts evaluation and policy studies on various educational issues from Pre-K to workforce outcomes in the United States, Canada, and beyond. Visit us at educationalpolicy.org.
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