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WASHINGTON -- A new report published Tuesday by the New America Foundation criticizes several higher education lobbying associations for standing in the way of a proposed federal database that would provide more expansive data about how colleges are performing.

 The report -- “College Blackout: How the Higher Education Lobby Fought to Keep Students in the Dark” -- outlines the history of a proposal to create a federal student-unit record system, which has been a lightning rod for controversy since it was first suggested by then-Education Secretary Margaret Spellings's higher education commission in 2005.

Such a database would be able to track students as they move into higher education and through college -- or, increasingly, multiple colleges -- and into the work force. It would produce more robust information about student outcomes, such as graduation rates and salary information.

Proponents, such as the New America Foundation, say that a student-unit record system would provide a better window into how colleges are performing and allow for more accountability for the billions of dollars in loans and grants that the federal government pumps into the industry each year.

Critics of the database have argued that storing student-level data in a single federal database would threaten student privacy and is too risky. Among the most vocal opponents of the database is the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, which represents private nonprofit colleges and advocated for the ban on the student unit record system that Congress enacted in 2008.

“The private nonprofit higher education lobby bears substantial responsibility for the implementation of the student unit record ban, and for keeping Americans in the dark about how well federally subsidized colleges and universities are serving their students,” the New America report says.

The report was written by Clare McCann and Amy Laitinen, and was funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Lumina Foundation. It portrays the private college lobbying group as an outlier among a growing chorus of other higher education associations and some members of Congress who want to see a student unit record.

For example, the report notes that the associations representing colleges that enroll nearly three-quarters of undergraduate students in the country now support a student-unit record system. Those groups include the American Association of Community Colleges, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

Meanwhile, NAICU, which represents institutions enrolling a far smaller share of students, continues to strongly support the federal ban on such a database. The report argues that NAICU enjoys an “outsized influence” over federal policy, generally, as well as within the “Big Six” leading nonprofit higher education associations.

Disagreement among the large higher education associations over a student unit record present a delicate balancing act for the American Council on Education, which represents all of them as the umbrella lobbying group for the entire nonprofit sector of higher education.

The organization has not yet taken an official position on the issue, according to Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president for government relations and public affairs.

“There are two very different perspectives about a unit record system for higher education, and they are both correct,” Hartle said. “It will give you more accurate and extensive data and it does raise real privacy issues.”

Hartle also disputed the notion that NAICU was the primary force behind the blocking of a student unit record, noting the large swath of conservative Republicans, who were -- and remain -- philosophically opposed to a federal database of student-level data.

Further, Hartle said, the report’s tallying of support for a student unit record support by listing the number of students at institutions is a misguided way to view the role of higher education lobbying groups. 

“Associations representing colleges and universities would not make a claim that they represent students, they would make a claim that they represent institutions,” he said. “There’s no question that the chart that they have is accurate, but it would be very different if you showed the number of institutions represented.”

NAICU represents the majority of nonprofit institutions in higher education, he added. 

David L. Warren, NAICU's president, responded to the report by reiterating his organization's concerns for what a student unit record system would do to student privacy.

“Whatever the speculation about our motives may be, the truth is that our opposition is -- and consistently has been -- grounded in the concern about the adverse impact such a system would have on student privacy," Warren said in a statement. "We do not believe that the price for enrolling in college should be permanent entry into a massive data registry."

The quality and availability of higher education data has long been a focus of policy debates, but the New America report comes as tensions over data are heightened because of the Obama administration’s plan to develop a college ratings system.

Critics of the ratings system have said that the Education Department lacks sufficiently accurate and complete data to judge colleges’ performance, much less to use as a basis for allocating federal student aid.

In defending the ratings system last fall, Education Secretary Arne Duncan called out higher education associations, including the American Council on Education, for “propping up the status quo” by using a lack of perfect data as an excuse for inaction on the college ratings system.

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