College Database Bill Raises Concerns About Student Privacy

A bill intended to close the data gaps on student outcomes in higher education is widely supported, though some are hesitant about how it handles personal information.

April 26, 2021
Senator Bill Cassidy

The reintroduced College Transparency Act is receiving broad support across the political spectrum and from professional organizations, but opponents of the bill in higher education are concerned about how students’ information would be shared with the federal government.

The bipartisan bill -- spearheaded by Senator Bill Cassidy, a Republican from Louisiana -- would create a student data system within the National Center for Education Statistics to track student outcomes at colleges throughout the United States. Democratic senators Elizabeth Warren from Massachusetts and Sheldon Whitehouse from Rhode Island, along with Cassidy's Republican colleague Tim Scott from South Carolina, are original cosponsors of the legislation.

Colleges would be required to collect and submit data to the Department of Education regarding student enrollment, persistence, transfer and completion measures for all programs and degree levels. The data would also be disaggregated by demographics, including race and ethnicity, gender, and age.

The bill would permit the Department of Education to periodically share limited data with other federal agencies, like the Internal Revenue Service and Social Security Administration, to calculate postgraduate outcomes, such as income and career prospects.

Lawmakers say the resulting database -- which would be publicly available online -- will help prospective students and their families better understand the return on investment for specific schools and programs.

“Students already face tremendous pressure when deciding where they want to attend college,” Cassidy said. “The College Transparency Act allows students and their families to know all the facts before choosing the best school for them.”

The bill has been endorsed by 151 organizations from across the country representing educational institutions, student organizations and employers.

“It's difficult to find legislation that unites so many different groups and so many different individuals of ranging ideology, so we're very hopeful that when Congress [reauthorizes the Higher Education Act] that this really needs to be a part of it and will be,” said Craig Lindwarm, vice president for governmental affairs at the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, which supports the legislation.

But other organizations representing higher education institutions haven’t endorsed the College Transparency Act, citing concerns about how the federal government would collect and access private student data.

Luis Maldonado, vice president for government relations and policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, said AASCU wants to ensure that any measures taken to increase college transparency appropriately consider that the right data are collected and ample safeguards are in place to maintain student privacy.

“We certainly support the basic intent of the bill,” Maldonado said. “It is the specifics around the reporting and collection mechanism that is needed and, as specified in the bill, the amount of data to be collected that provides us with some pause in order for us as an association to proceed with caution.”

Others are concerned about the potential ramifications of giving individual students’ personal information to the federal government without their express consent or the ability to opt out, said Jody Feder, director of accountability and regulatory affairs for the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.

“For example, what would be the impact on undocumented students if the federal government has their personal information?” Feder questioned.

NAICU is more interested in the approach to collect student data that’s taken in the Student Right to Know Before You Go Act, which was reintroduced during the last Congress by Senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon. The bill employs a technological approach called secure multiparty computation that only requires colleges to share encrypted data and limits the calculations that can be performed on them -- providing data matches without accessing underlying student information, said Feder.

“We think that approach strikes a good balance between transparency and student privacy,” Feder said.

The American Council on Education hasn't taken a position on the bill and therefore isn't among the 151 endorsing organizations.

The College Transparency Act does include data privacy and security measures -- it would limit how data are disclosed to the public and used by other federal agencies, prohibit the sale of data, protect data from being used by law enforcement, and secure the data at NCES with strong standards and governance protocols.

“It's important to recognize that this is limited collection of data and for limited purposes,” Lindwarm said. “The legislation utilizes best practices for data security, intentionally houses it within NCES -- a statistical agency -- and minimizes the data collection appropriately.”

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