New Congressional Push for Unit-Record Data System

A bipartisan group of senators released a bill Monday that would overturn the ban on a federal unit-record data system to allow for the tracking of educational and employment outcomes of college students, Politico reported.

The College Transparency Act of 2017—introduced by Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Orrin Hatch (R-UT), Bill Cassidy (R-LA), and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI)—would direct the National Center for Education Statistics to develop a secure data system by coordinating with other federal agencies. It would prohibit the creation of a single database within the U.S. Department of Education and instead authorize the federal government to connect data it already collects.

The bill includes measures that would restrict how the government could use the data. It also contains provisions that would protect against privacy violations, including "disclosure limitations, prohibitions on the sale of data, penalties for illegally obtaining information, protections for vulnerable students, prohibition on law enforcement access, and strong limitations [for] personally identifiable information," according to a fact sheet. Additionally, the legislation would bar a federal college ranking or ratings system.

The U.S. House of Representatives introduced a bipartisan companion bill on Tuesday.

The House measure, introduced by Reps. Paul Mitchell (R-MI) and Jared Polis (D-CO) closely mirrors the Senate version, with the bill's sponsors saying it would help students and families with "actionable and customizable" information on student outcomes, while also securely protecting students' privacy.

“AACRAO welcomes the opportunity to be part of the discussion of how to better track student outcomes and recognizes that a unit record database may be a possible solution. The proposed legislation is a thoughtful attempt at tackling a very complex issue,” said Executive Director Mike Reilly. “However, any proposed system must ensure that student privacy and data security—including all the safeguards afforded by FERPA—are strongly protected. We look forward to working with Congress to address those privacy and security concerns involving the creation of any such database.”

The proposed legislation is one of the most sweeping and bipartisan efforts to repeal a federal prohibition on a student-unit record system since Congress enacted it as part of the 2008 reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. While the measure has support from some Democrats and Republicans alike, its passage remains in doubt because opposition to a federal data system remains on the right and the left, based on privacy concerns and philosophical differences over the role of the federal government in higher education, Inside Higher Ed reported.


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