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The promise of big data versus the menace of Big Brother.
That’s the storyline of an unlikely, behind-the-scenes battle being waged over a plan to help Americans know their odds of graduating on time from a particular college, and how much money they will likely earn when they do.
The fiercely contested debate pits the advantages of collecting this seemingly basic information against the risk to hundreds of thousands of so-called Dreamers — immigrants brought to the United States by their parents and protected from deportation by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that is now in limbo.
Having accurate graduation rates and alumni earnings information may help students, including those who are undocumented, find the right college, said Chad Marlow, advocacy and policy counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union.
But “the idea we have to check is, are these kids going to get a better education if they’re deported? And that’s the climate that we live in,” said Marlow, who focuses on privacy and technology.
“Even the kids who aren’t subject to deportation — are they going to think they’re getting the most out of their education if they feel like they’re being spied upon?”
The proposal to let the government monitor students’ progress through their higher educations — known as student-unit recordkeeping — has significant ramifications for universities and colleges. Some would look better if more accurate success rates were made available to students. Some would look worse.
Related: Placement rates, other data colleges provide consumers are often alternative facts
Now injected into this longstanding debate is the objection that collecting such data in an age of hacks, mistrust, political division and a crackdown on immigrants threatens student privacy. That’s a position being taken by opponents as varied as the ACLU and the Tenth Amendment Center, which backs curbs on federal power.
“You start dumping that into these big databases and all of a sudden the federal government can track you all over the place,” said Michael Maharrey, spokesman for the Tenth Amendment Center. “We’ve seen they’re not always trustworthy when it comes to the security of all this data.”
Critics cite a 2015 Government Accountability Office report that the number of breaches per year of personal information held by federal agencies more than doubled, to 27,624, from 2009 to 2014. They also draw attention to the 2015 hack of personnel records of 4 million federal employees and contractors and to the “longstanding weaknesses” in information security identified by the Department of Education’s inspector general in 2014.
“It only takes one person in the government who is untrustworthy and does the wrong thing with that information” to threaten someone’s personal privacy, said Marlow. “And if we were already concerned — and we were — should we be more concerned in the current political climate? The answer is absolutely yes.”
Colleges and universities themselves have split on the issue. Lobbying organizations representing public universities and community colleges, whose graduation rates would look better using student-unit recordkeeping, now support it. But the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, made up of private, nonprofit institutions, is opposed, saying that the “systematic collection of data on individual students” would create “a serious and substantial risk to student privacy.”
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On the other side are advocates for students who bemoan the “remarkable lack of transparency and accountability” that results from the vacuum of accurate data, as one organization — the Young Invincibles — put it in a position paper calling for such critical information as graduation rates to finally be accurately provided.
“Right now students are making one of the most important and most expensive decisions of their lives with very little concrete, verifiable information to go on,” said Amy Laitinen, director of higher education at the think tank New America, a longtime proponent of student-unit recordkeeping.
“If I had to choose between getting this important data and protecting Dreamers, I would choose the Dreamers. But it’s a false choice,” said Laitinen, who points out that the government already has plenty of information about DACA recipients, including the applications they filled out themselves.
The battle has intensified with the suspension of DACA by the Trump administration, and its crackdown on undocumented immigrants. That policy includes a little-noticed executive order suspending federal agencies’ data privacy protections for noncitizens.
Right now consumers get a poor approximation of actual graduation rates. The federal government is allowed to tally only how many full-time students enter college for the first time, and how many finish. That means the growing number of part-time, returning and transfer students don’t get counted.
Related: In new age of college transparency, who’s checking the facts?
Tracking every student through his or her higher education would be far more accurate. It would also let prospective students see how people like them performed at given institutions, whether those people were able to repay their student loans and how much money they made after graduating. Policymakers could assess the return on the $130-billion-a-year taxpayer investment in federal financial aid.
Much of this information is already available but not combined or comprehensively reported. Colleges are required to report the success of individual students who receive federal financial aid, for instance; the graduation rates of those who don’t are given to the privately operated National Student Clearinghouse.
Many states also gather precisely the information that the federal government is banned from seeking, some with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. (The Gates Foundation is among the funders of The Hechinger Report, which produced this story.)
But federal agencies have been prevented from pulling together these numbers on a national level, or collecting it themselves, since the higher education lobby persuaded allies in Congress in 2008 to impose a ban on student-unit recordkeeping.
A new, bipartisan bill, the College Transparency Act, would remove the ban. Backed by Democrats Elizabeth Warren and Sheldon Whitehouse and Republicans Orrin Hatch and Bill Cassidy in the Senate and Republican Paul Mitchell and Democrat Jared Polis in the House, it would require colleges to report student-level data to the government, which would summarize the information online. Data through which individuals could be identified would not be allowed to be shared, including with law-enforcement agencies.
“You can find more information about a washing machine you’re thinking of buying than you can find about an educational major at a college or university,” said Mitchell in a statement. “Most people say they choose to go to college to start a career. Yet, they don’t have answers to basic questions like, How likely are they to graduate? How long will it take to complete their degree? How likely are they to find a job? How much will they earn?”
The Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking, set up by Congress to study how data could be used to improve federal policy while protecting privacy, got more comments about the student-unit recordkeeping ban than any other topic — most of them in favor of it — the commission said in the final report it released last month.
Related: Universities and colleges struggle to stem big drops in enrollment
But it recommended repealing the ban and others like it, saying that collecting personal data wouldn’t significantly increase the risk to privacy. An existing law, the Confidential Information Protection and Statistical Efficiency Act, could be used to limit the use of information collected in this way, imposing fines or jail time for privacy violations, the commissioners concluded.
“For me the sign that they 100 percent got this right is that you don’t have loopholes that could lead to hacks or employees messing this up or the government changing its position,” said Amelia Vance, policy counsel at the Future of Privacy Forum who focuses on education privacy.
Privacy advocates including the Electronic Privacy Information Center also applauded many of the commission’s findings, including one encouraging the use of privacy-enhancing technologies.
The congressional proposal to remove the student-unit recordkeeping ban, meanwhile, is being backed by the Student Veterans of America, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, among others.
“It’s a no-brainer,” Laitinen said. “It’s a no-brainer on the left in terms of consumer protection and it’s a no-brainer on the right in terms of student choice.”
Notably absent from that list, however, is the chair of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, Republican Virginia Foxx, who sponsored the ban in the first place.
In a statement citing “the deep concerns that Americans have about government intrusion into their private lives,” Foxx said that “those concerns are as relevant as ever.”
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up here for our higher education newsletter.
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