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Political winds shift on federal unit records database -- but how much?

Idea Whose Time Has Come?
May 13, 2013

WASHINGTON — Right after the election in November, it seemed that Congressional Republicans and the Obama administration had reached a rare policy consensus: both supported requiring colleges to disclose more information about graduates’ outcomes in general, and a bill from Senators Marco Rubio and Ron Wyden that would require the disclosure of salary data (among other statistics) in particular.

But the latest version of that bill, introduced Thursday, revives one of the more politically controversial policy proposals in higher education. Like the previous version introduced in the last Congress, the legislation, the Student Right to Know Before You Go Act, would require colleges to collect and disaggregate more data for the federal government. Colleges would make information public about students’ salaries by major and program; graduation and remediation rates; success rates for students who receive a Pell Grant or veterans’ benefits; and other benchmarks not currently collected in such detail.

This time, though, the bill’s sponsors, who include Senator Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat, as well as Rubio and Wyden, also call for a federal “unit record” database -- a database administered by the Education Department that could track students through college and into the work force.

The previous version of the bill called for stitching together state longitudinal databases in order to better track students -- a project that some observers said would be technically difficult, perhaps unworkable and take years to accomplish, but which would also avoid confronting a federal ban on a national unit record system.

A unit record database has long been the holy grail for many policy makers, who argue that collecting data at the federal level is the only way to get an accurate view of postsecondary education. But privacy advocates, private colleges and Congressional Republicans, all of whom oppose the creation of such a database, teamed up in opposition the last time the idea was proposed, by the Bush administration in 2005. Then, the opponents succeeded; the 2008 reauthorization of the Higher Education Act included a provision specifically forbidding the creation of a federal unit record data system.

The ban couldn’t stop a growing chorus of researchers, committees (federal and otherwise) and reports, though. In the past seven years, the voices calling for a unit record system have only intensified; there is now a near-consensus that a unit record system would be a boon for higher education policy makers, by tracking the flow of individual students into and out of colleges. The question is whether the consensus on policy could lead to a consensus in politics: Has the ground shifted enough in the past seven years that members of Congress who once opposed a unit record system will now vote in favor of it, and other staunch opponents will waver?

Support for Unit Records Grows

An increasing number of groups, including some federal panels, have called for a federal unit record system since 2006: the Education Department’s advisory panel on accreditation, last year; the Committee on Measures of Student Success, in 2011; and nearly every advocacy group and think tank that wrote white papers earlier this year for a project funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation on rethinking financial aid.

A federal system, those groups agree, is the only way to accurately measure student success. It would allow the Education Department to account for part-time students, transfers and others not currently captured in the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, the clearinghouse of data colleges report to the federal government.  And, through linkage with Social Security or other databases, it could track graduates’ wages more accurately than is currently possible.

The Obama administration -- unable to create a federal unit record database -- has offered states money to construct longitudinal databases of their own, including funding in the 2009 stimulus bill. Nearly all states now have, or are developing, some version of a database to track students throughout their educational careers.

At the same time, the past six years have seen growing questions about the value of a college education, driven in part by rising concerns about student debt. Students’ and families’ need for better data has emerged as one of the few subjects on which the White House and Congressional Republicans can agree; House Majority Leader Eric Cantor singled it out in November, the day after the election, as one of a few areas where the Obama administration and its Congressional foes might find common ground.

Yet many of the same Republicans in the House of Representatives who have held hearings on data, transparency and accountability in higher education -- saying, in essence, that Congress should know what they’re paying for via the Pell Grant and student loans -- have remained opposed to the creation of a federal unit record database.

The opposition isn’t universal. Duncan Hunter, a California Republican who co-sponsored the House version of Wyden and Rubio’s bill, dismissed concerns that the federal government couldn’t adequately protect students’ privacy at an event on Thursday.

"This not hard, this is not new," Hunter said. "Privacy is easy now. We're at the point where you could have this information and aggregate it together with no privacy issues whatsoever. That's the pushback I see from my colleagues, that's their excuse, but this is competition. Competition between universities means good things for you."

Some longtime foes of unit records for privacy reasons have been impressed by the senators' work. “Wyden and Rubio deserve a lot of credit for their effort to strike some kind of a balance between transparency, privacy and institutional compliance burden,” Barmak Nassirian, the former associate executive director for external relations with the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers and a fierce opponent of the unit records proposal, for privacy reasons, the last time the issue was raised, wrote in an e-mail to Inside Higher Ed on Friday. “The goals of the bill are laudable and it certainly could serve as the framework for a workable arrangement. In my opinion, it doesn't quite do the trick, but it does highlight the issues.”

But others remain staunch in their opposition. At a meeting of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in February -- the private-college group that spearheaded higher education’s opposition to the unit record database in 2006 -- Representative Virginia Foxx, chairwoman of the Committee on Education and the Workforce’s higher education subcommittee, boasted of her role in passing the ban on a federal unit record database.

“Some may unintentionally support a federal unit record system because they have been poorly advised by their staff into thinking that this is some way to stick it to institutions of higher education,” a senior Republican aide said in an e-mail to Inside Higher Ed on Friday. “But a federal unit record system is only designed to answer questions no one is asking, namely: how do we bring No Child Left Behind and its command and control mentality to higher education.”

Cantor, for one, appears to be backing away. Another, milder bill is said to be circulating on higher education data and transparency issues, to be introduced some time this week. Called the Investigating Postsecondary Education Data for Students Act -- or IPEDS -- it would direct a federal committee to study what data students and parents need in order to better choose a college.

Should that bill gain the favor of House Republican leadership -- and Cantor is reportedly a supporter, according to several observers here -- it could push the unit record effort out of the picture, at least until the pending renewal of the Higher Education Act.

Lobbyists said they would consider legislative success in the near future for the unit record bill a political long shot. Congress will vote on a higher education issue in the upcoming months, determining the future of interest rates on student loans. But the White House and House Republicans alike have said they want that to be a “clean” vote that doesn’t become a vehicle for other higher education legislation.

“Unless there was an overwhelming bipartisan support for going in this direction right away, it’s hard for me to imagine that this particular idea or proposal would get picked out,” said a senior higher education lobbyist, adding that a unit records system is still viewed as “complicated and controversial and costly” -- an unlikely cause for a deeply divided Congress to adopt.

 

 

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