New America’s Education Policy Program today released a new report exploring the history of a ban on a national student unit record system. To read the report, click here. Check out collegeblackout.org and join the conversation at #collegeblackout. For more on the ban, check back at EdCentral in the coming weeks.
With ever-rising college costs, more than $1 trillion in outstanding federal student loan debt, and recent graduates wondering if they’ll ever be able to find good careers and pay down their debts, students and families are increasingly looking to college value when selecting schools. But right now it’s difficult, if not impossible, for most students to get answers to critical questions about college value. That’s because in 2008, Congress passed a law making it illegal for the federal government to use the data already held by institutions, states, and the federal government to answer questions like whether students graduate, transfer, drop out, or drown in debt after graduation. Largely thanks to the higher education lobby, students are in the dark when it comes to colleges. In the early 2000s, the U.S. Department of Education and other higher education stakeholders proposed creating a student unit record system that would link institutions’ already-existing data, match them across schools to accurately track schools’ outcomes on measures like graduation rates, and add other critical information like earnings and debt. This system, they argued, would significantly reduce the paperwork burden faced by institutions, and—most importantly—enable students, families, colleges, and policy makers to ask and answer fundamental questions about college value. A vocal minority at One Dupont, however, had other ideas. As our new paper College Blackout: How the Higher Education Lobby Fought to Keep Students in the Dark reports, despite support at the outset from the American Council on Education (ACE), the umbrella higher education industry group that represents all of the “Big Six” lobbying groups, the sands kept shifting. The National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU) opposed the idea—ostensibly because of its implications for students’ privacy. But NAICU institutions regularly submit student-level data to federal and even private agencies, from the Department of Defense to the National Student Clearinghouse. Many in the privacy and higher education communities believe that NAICU was more interested in protecting institutional privacy than student privacy, as a way to obscure the outcomes of poor-performing institutions. But NAICU successfully framed the conversation as one around privacy and in 2008, before the idea of a student unit record system could take flight, the ban was included in the Higher Education Act reauthorization passed by Congress and signed into law.