Blog: Higher Ed Beat

The Push for More College Data, With the Challenge of Protecting Student Privacy

Students, parents and taxpayers want to know now more than ever if college is worth it. The answer overall is an unequivocal yes, said Amy Laitinen, director of the higher education program at New America.

But, Laitinen added, Americans don’t know how worthwhile most individual colleges or programs are for particular students.

“The real question is which college, which program, for which students, at which price, for how much debt is it worth it,” Laitinen said.

Students and parents largely remain in the dark about those questions because there is no federal student-level data system to provide answers, she told journalists gathered in Philadelphia this month. That void leaves students vulnerable to colleges that are essentially diploma mills that saddle students with debt they cannot pay back, she said.

A 2008 change to federal law currently prohibits the federal government from establishing such a student-level data system. The ban was written by North Carolina Rep. Virginia Foxx, the conservative Republican who chairs the House education committee. The ban also has received continued support from the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities and, more recently, the American Civil Liberties Union.

At the Education Writers Association event in Philadelphia, Laitinen and ACLU attorney Chad Marlow debated whether such a data system could conceivably be created without producing new risks for undocumented students, Muslim students and others.

“We have a president in Washington who is outwardly hostile toward immigrants and Muslims,” Marlow said. “I think that statement is pretty much beyond dispute at this point.”

Foxx and NAICU have raised similar student privacy concerns in the past. Marlow said in light of an executive order relaxing privacy protections for non-citizens in the U.S. and an aggressive posturing on deportations from the White House, now is a questionable time to pursue a student unit record system.

With the student unit record ban in place, some states and higher education institutions have begun to look for alternative solutions to answer questions about postsecondary outcomes for students who attend their universities. But those state-level systems can’t answer questions about students who move elsewhere in the country after graduation.

Laitinen said the federal government is already collecting Social Security, federal student loans and GI benefits data, but they are not being connected to provide comprehensive information about the value of higher education.

“The best data is already at the federal level,” she said.

Legislation creating a student-level database has received some support from Republicans and Democrats in the past.

But while the demands for such data will likely continue to grow, the current political climate might serve to heighten existing civil liberties concerns that often have united the left and right in support of the ban.