A new federal, bipartisan bill has been proposed in the United States Senate and House of Representatives that would create a college student data system. The system would evaluate enrollment patterns, progression, completion and post-college outcomes, as well as the cost to the student and financial aid. The stated goal of the act is to provide students and families with information that will help them make a more informed decision about higher education pursuits. The bill would benefit students, especially in light of student financial concerns, but it also raises questions about how the information will be used.
The student debt crisis is more than hyperbole. The total student loan debt is $1.31 trillion with over $30 billion considered “seriously delinquent” (more than 90 days late in payments). More than 2 million students have $100,000+ in student loans. It is hard to fathom how a student graduating college can expect to relocate for an entry level job, pay their bills, save to buy a house and pay off their loan. It isn’t surprising that 11.2% default on their loans.
Students, in turn, are becoming increasingly concerned about the return they are receiving from college. Having grown up during an economically stressful time, Generation Z cares a lot about their future career prospects. They want to know that the cost of their education will pay off. In light of these conditions, many recognize the need for the College Transparency Act.
The College Transparency Act of 2017 would lift the ban established by the 2008 reauthorization of the Higher Education Act that prevents reported data from being evaluated for targeted outcomes, such as on-time graduations and job placement. The National Center for Education Statistics would coordinate with other federal agencies to develop a secure system to analyze collected data and make connections between the data.
The act addresses some security concerns. With measures to protect again privacy violations, a ban on selling data, prohibiting law enforcement access and barring a federal ranking system, the bill aims to help protect students.
"Today's students and their families need accurate, accessible and comprehensive information in order to choose the college that is the best fit for their individual needs," wrote Senators Orrin Hatch (R-UT), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Bill Cassidy (R-LA) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) in the College Transparency Act of 2017 one pager. “Unfortunately, important information about whether or not a particular college or major pays off for students is currently incomplete. For example, despite the vast majority of students citing finding a good job as their primary reason for going to college, there is currently no easy way to evaluate the labor-market success of various programs or majors.”
Institutions such as New America’s Education Policy program, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities and the American Association of Community Colleges have supported the legislation, citing the need for students to have more complete information.
Not everyone agrees that enough has been done to protect student privacy. Releasing data on the entire student population of the United States is too risky to many opposing viewpoints. While the data will undoubtedly be useful, does that use supersede a student’s expectation of privacy?
Organizations like the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities pointed to the fact that people are more concerned about their security when it comes to big data and government. A student unit record system would violate their privacy. They also feel their member’s security concerns have not been met or even addressed in the proposed bill.
The American Civil Liberties Union has also taken a position of opposition to this bill. Their concern falls to the use of the collected data and the potential for abuse, stating that the government could use this data to target undocumented students on campus.
Christopher Sadler, education data and privacy fellow for the Open Technology Institute pinpoints security concerns with the system interacting with other federal institutions to derive data.
“The system’s links between several agencies (such as the Treasury Department, to calculate earnings data for particular programs of study across different institutions of higher education) will be a subject of concern, and these also should be carefully limited to only what is absolutely necessary,” he stated. “Beyond ensuring that ‘the linkages are not always connected, but occur at appropriate intervals’ as specified in the bill, these connections and data feeds will need to be monitored closely to ensure that they have not been compromised.”
He suggested that complying with existing regulations, as recommended by the legislation, may not be enough with the recent breach of the Office of Personnel Management. To truly provide security to the student information, the government would need to provide better protection than the current requirements.