The deluge of student data privacy laws proposed at both the state and federal levels attempt to provide much-needed updates to antiquated privacy regulations that allow far too many loopholes for the access and sharing of data. But in the rush to protect students’ information and keep profiteers from accessing students’ personal data, we risk losing crucial opportunities to use these data to help students, particularly those from less privileged backgrounds.
How can this be the case? In response to justifiable concerns about who has access to student data and what they do with it, many proposed student data privacy laws -- more than 140 have been introduced in 49 states, and more than 30 have already passed -- include stipulations to prevent “operators” and/or “school service providers” from sharing data, even for educational purposes.
Some, but not all, of the state bills make exceptions for nonprofit organizations like ACT, which play an important role in connecting students to crucial information and resources that can increase the likelihood that they will enroll in college, learn about scholarships and connect with organizations that support student success in postsecondary education. One of the proposed federal bills that has surfaced on Capitol Hill, the Student Data Privacy Rights Act, would, in its current form, negatively affect our ability to conduct and provide educational research for the public good, and make it more difficult for students to receive information about college opportunities and scholarships.
How many students could be negatively affected by a poorly written law? In 2014, 1.8 million students took the ACT test, including 57 percent of all graduating high school seniors nationwide. When students register to take the ACT, they have the option of completing a survey about their plans and aspirations for life after high school. Participation is voluntary, though 86 percent chose to complete the survey. By completing the survey and indicating their desire to opt in, students give permission for their information to be shared with colleges and scholarship organizations that send them information about programs and resources matching their financial needs and academic interests.
For over 50 years, ACT has been a trusted and proven partner in collecting such data. Organizations that provide millions of dollars of college scholarships to qualified students rely on ACT’s data to help them reach students who might not otherwise know that they qualify for their programs and funding. But if proposed laws lack flexibility in their definitions of “operator” or “school service provider,” these scholarship organizations stand to lose access to those data. And the end result is that deserving students would lose an important and possibly life-changing opportunity.
Among the concerns raised about sharing students’ personal data is that it can lead to them being stereotyped or pigeonholed too early in their lives. I think we have to trust students to make decisions about their data, and about the opportunities that they might or might not decide to pursue.
As a student affairs administrator at Stanford University, Dartmouth College and other institutions, I’ve worked with countless students who, at one point, hadn’t thought they were “college material,” or qualified to attend the most competitive colleges. What changed their minds and motivated them was receiving information from institutions and organizations that recognized their talent, work ethic and potential and encouraged them to apply for admission and scholarship programs. And colleges send this information after they use services like ACT to identify those who can benefit from their programs. I’d rather help students consider all of their options than deny them the opportunity to do so.
At ACT, we are developing new initiatives and partnerships to expand data-driven outreach efforts to increase college opportunity. Earlier this academic year, ACT launched the Get Your Name in the Game initiative to provide college and scholarship information to underserved students who waited until senior year to take the ACT, and who opted in to share their personal data. Our research shows that few of these students received information from colleges or scholarship programs, which tended to focus their outreach efforts on students who had taken the ACT during their junior year. To level the playing field where we could, we offered educational institutions and organizations free access to the data these students provided, in order to contact them about educational opportunities. The result is that nearly 750,000 more underserved high school seniors were connected with colleges and scholarship funders who were interested in them. Despite the promising early results of this initiative, it would have to be discontinued if the proposed laws forbid us from sharing these data.
As our federal and state governments continue to collaborate with educational organizations to sort out the details of these laws, it’s important that they are also vigilant in preserving opportunities for nonprofits to share data within strict ethical and legal standards. Responsible and effective stewards of data like ACT are already doing this.
To ensure that our data are only shared for the benefit of students, we strictly vet any organizations that request access to students’ information. Companies that charge students or their families fees for services are banned. Only organizations with an educational mission are eligible for access, and they are not allowed to share the data with any other organizations.
We also recognize that students and their families are often confused about what information is being shared and for what purposes. This is why we support the current push for greater transparency -- it’s important that organizations like ACT are clear and forthcoming about how they regulate and safeguard access to students’ data. We provide detailed information on our policies and practices on student data privacy here.
There is also a strong need for parents to educate themselves, and teach their children, about how to make wise decisions about sharing their personal data. On Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, children are deemed old enough to authorize their data to be shared with these companies at age 13 -- including birth dates, personal photos and where they go to school. As a parent and former student affairs dean, I cannot tell you how important it is for parents to discuss these matters with their children.
There is a lot of monitoring that parents need to do in the current environment of massive social networks, and for-profit companies taking advantage of the ease of access to tons of data about their children. But students and their families also need to be given the choice to share their data with trusted education organizations. If data-sharing restrictions are placed on nonprofits like ACT, students and their families will lose the right to make the decision for themselves to receive information from colleges and scholarship funds.
As these laws evolve and gain clarity, policy makers should balance the need for updated safeguards while preserving the ability for proven programs that benefit students to continue to do so by virtue of collecting and sharing data.
Jim Larimore is the chief officer for underserved learners at ACT. He previously served as deputy director for student success at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and has been a student affairs professional at Stanford University, Dartmouth College, Swarthmore College, NYU Abu Dhabi and Amherst College.
NACAC releases annual survey results, which show that most colleges let in most applicants -- and that increases in applications may not translate into more students. Interest in transfer applications is up.
President Obama’s free community college proposal and college ratings initiatives promise to further the historic expansion of college access begun in 1965, when Congress created the Pell Grant Program, which pried open the doors of higher education to deserving but poor students.
But the administration’s chosen means to the praiseworthy end of further expanding college access do not fundamentally challenge inequality in higher education; instead, they reinforce our two-tiered and unequal system. Federal policy instead should encourage academically qualified, lower-income students to matriculate to selective, four-year colleges. A monetary rewards system (a Race to the Top for higher education) or statutory mandates could advance that objective.
The current proposals are inadequate means to the laudable end of increasing access for the disadvantaged for three main reasons. First, money is not enough to ensure the success of low-income and first-generation college students (an often overlooked group that it is good to see included in the administration’s proposals). A shortage of financial resources is an important part -- but just one dimension -- of the multifaceted challenges that hinder lower-income and first-generation students. These students not only face financial impediments, but also confront social and cultural challenges in higher education. They lack the parental support, social networks and human capital of wealthier students with college-educated parents. Students without family and social connections to the world of higher education often find it difficult to navigate collegiate life.
The majority of such students matriculate to two-year colleges. These campuses are literally and figuratively closer to home. At more selective institutions, the gulf between college and community life is greatest and the commitment to educating Pell Grant-eligible, first-generation students is less robust, judging from enrollment statistics. (Studies show that the most competitive colleges are the least likely to enroll Pell Grant students).
In effect, there are two vastly different systems of education: one for richer students from college-educated parents and another for poorer students from undereducated families.
But most community colleges are not equipped to provide the academic and social supports necessary for the success of the capable but needy students drawn to them -- the second flaw in the administration’s means to a worthy end. Reams of data have long documented the struggle of community colleges to deliver the quality education and additional support that students need. Teaching staffs at these colleges juggle heavy course loads and are responsible for hundreds of students, many of whom need remedial instruction in basic skills. Graduation rates at community colleges are meager. And, although many students enter community college with plans to transfer to four-year institutions, only one in five actually does.
In effect, there are two vastly different systems of education: one for richer students from college-educated parents and another for poorer students from undereducated families. Richer students overwhelmingly attend the nation’s selective colleges and universities, where admissions officials have their pick of applicants.
Poorer, first-generation students overwhelmingly attend community colleges. Even some poorer students who are academically qualified for far more competitive institutions choose community colleges -- a phenomenon called “undermatching.”
The administration’s proposals will not end these inequities and do not aspire to end them. The community college proposal is instead a concession to the inevitability of a two-tiered, separate and unequal, system and will reinforce the status quo, including undermatching.
To be clear, there certainly is a role for a strong community college system in the educational marketplace. For some students, two-year colleges are an appropriate choice. And the federal government should strengthen these institutions by increasing funding to them across the board. But it can reform the community college system without also enacting policies that funnel academically able, poorer students into two-year rather than four-year colleges. In other words, the federal government could increase allocations to community colleges and also promote greater access for lower-income students. It need not tether the latter policy objective to the former.
Given the well-known limitations of two-year colleges, my recent proposal to increase college access for Pell Grant-eligible, first-generation students promoted greater outreach by selective, four-year institutions of higher education. Selective is not synonymous with Ivy League; it includes the most competitive private colleges, cash-starved state-supported universities and lesser-known liberal arts colleges that specialize in a student-centered educational experience.
The best selective institutions invest in the success of all admitted students. These colleges award generous financial aid packages and provide institutional support ranging from dedicated personnel to enrichment classes and social clubs to acculturate students to college life and facilitate academic progress. These are the colleges that produce the greatest return on investment and can change the life trajectories of students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Federal policy should encourage academically qualified, lower-income students to matriculate to selective colleges through monetary rewards or statutory mandates (as I will explain below).
The third challenge in the administration’s proposals pertains to its rating system, which is neither a necessary nor sufficient means to the government’s ends. Ratings alone are unlikely to substantially increase college access for Pell Grant-eligible, first-generation students. Identifying the colleges that are the least successful at providing access is an important initial step, one that I have advocated. The proposed ratings will help diagnose the nature of the access problem for economically and educationally disadvantaged students. However, different incentives are necessary to spur corrective action.
The federal government can incentivize access for lower-income students at selective institutions in one of two ways. One type of incentive would work by conferring a reward on the institution for increasing access for the disadvantaged. The federal government could create a system of competitive grants and award additional federal dollars to colleges that enroll and provide effective support programs to a minimum percentage of Pell Grant-eligible and first-generation students. In other words, it could launch for higher education an analogue to the Race to the Top program established in 2009 to spur innovation in K-12 education.
The Obama administration reportedly plans to connect high ratings in its new system to additional federal funding. But judging from the tremendous pushback against the ratings system, its future is doubtful. And it is unnecessary to effect change. The government can promise more money to colleges that enroll a minimum number of low-income students without implementing a ratings plan.
A different kind of incentive program might work by imposing a penalty for noncompliance. Just as the nation once mandated race- and sex-based integration of colleges and universities, Congress and the Department of Education can compel the economic integration of America’s college campuses. The government could mandate, for example, that colleges receiving Higher Education Act funds admit and fund a minimum percentage of low-income, first-generation students or risk losing federal funds.
This kind of mandate would function like Title VI of the Civil Rights Act or Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which require federally assisted programs to meet certain nondiscrimination requirements. Statutory mandates not only have been used to integrate colleges and secondary schools, but to increase the number of girls and women who participate in competitive sports programs, and, most recently, to mandate compliance with new substantive legal standards on campus sexual harassment and sexual assault.
Greater college access for qualified but needy students also could be achieved through federal statutory mandates. Whether this approach can serve as a viable avenue to reform is no doubt uncertain, however, given Congressional gridlock and ideological resistance to federal mandates.
Whatever else it does, the government should promote true equality of opportunity in higher education. It should neither prop up our two-tier system nor view the problem of unequal access to college as primarily a money problem. A reward or mandate system should be implemented to encourage federally assisted colleges -- especially cash-starved, selective, four-year public universities -- to educate greater numbers of qualified, disadvantaged students. Federal policy should not reinforce class stratification in higher education.
Tomiko Brown-Nagin is the Daniel P. S. Paul Professor of Constitutional Law and a professor of history at Harvard University.