How Could Lifting the Federal Student Unit Record Ban Impact Financial Aid Offices?

By Allie Bidwell, Communications Staff

Over the last several years, there has been a growing call to provide students and families with more – and better – information about educational quality, student performance, workforce preparation, and potential future earnings. But the data that advocates want to publish – and that they say families need – is significantly limited under current law.

Due to a provision slipped into the Higher Education Opportunity Act in 2008 – the most recent reauthorization of the Higher Education Act – the federal government is prohibited from collecting student-level data. That means things that students and parents might like to know – such as earnings after graduation, the graduation rates of transfer students, and the debt-to-earnings ratios for particular programs or majors – are out of reach.

Still, there has been growing support on both sides of the aisle for overturning the ban. The Student Right to Know Before You Go Act, which would require lifting the ban, has bipartisan and bicameral support.

Organizations including NASFAA have also recommended that Congress – with certain parameters – lift the ban on a student unit record system.

But now, students, too, are asking Congress to overturn the ban.

Organizations representing nearly 1 million students signed on to a Student Agenda for Postsecondary Data Reform released by the youth advocacy group Young Invincibles last week, and called on Congress to lift the ban, while keeping students’ personal information secure and private.

“Overturning the ban and creating a system that values students would empower students and families with more information before they make these important decisions,” said Tom Allison, deputy director of policy and research at Young Invincibles.

On one hand, Allison said, a student unit record system could help students and families by giving them important information – such as whether students in a particular program are able to repay their loans, or the average amount of debt for a specific major. But a student unit record system could also be of use to states, postsecondary education systems, individual institutions, and even campus financial aid offices, he said.

“Administrators care about their students, and would benefit from knowing how they perform in the workforce after they leave campus,” Allison said.

In some cases, he said, it could even help shape policies on campus. If administrators knew, for example, that students in a particular major were having trouble repaying their loans, they could brainstorm ideas to make the program “more aligned with the demands of the workforce,” Allison said.

Richard Heath, director of student financial services at Anne Arundel Community College, said that while students can do their own research into certain outcome metrics, having a larger amount of information more readily available could be particularly useful.

Lifting the ban could be beneficial to financial aid offices in other ways, Heath said. For example, financial aid offices would have access to information about coursework students have taken at other schools.

“Many times, institutions don’t have a full picture of what the student is doing at another school,” Heath said. “They transfer schools and bring with them the student loan debt, as well as the Pell Grant [Lifetime Eligibility Used] that they have incurred, yet they don’t have a complete picture of what the student has actually done at those previous schools.”

When financial aid offices have that information, they can use it to help students through the completion of their studies, Heath added.

“When they come in, you can then help them to formulate a plan as to how they’re going to complete using the resources they have left,” he said. “Because many times, they’ve already used a good deal of the resources that they have.”

Still, work toward lifting the ban has not taken off, in part because some policymakers have concerns about student data privacy. For example, Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC), who chairs the House Committee on Education and the Workforce’s Subcommittee on Higher Education & Workforce Training, was a proponent of implementing the ban several years ago, and remains concerned about privacy.

“When Congress prohibited the creation of a federal database to collect personally identifiable information on individual college students, it was respecting the deep concerns that Americans have about government intrusion into their private lives,” Foxx said in a written statement to Inside Higher Ed this week. “Today, those concerns are as relevant as ever. It’s apparent there is also a need to provide more accountability in the higher education system. As we continue to discuss reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, we will work to protect the privacy of students and ensure strong accountability.”

But Young Invincibles’ Allison said there are a significant number of protections already in place, such as the Privacy Act of 1974, and its subsequent updates.

“We know how to de-identify the records and have them inform decision-making,” Allison said. “It’s not that privacy is not an issue, it’s just that in many ways we already have the protections and would know how to make the data useful.”

Allison added that in roundtable discussions, students discussed the issue of privacy frequently, but still supported lifting the student unit record ban.

“The truth is, students are sensitive about how their educational records and workforce records are used,” Allison said. “We saw that students recognized the beneficial tradeoff with using educational and workforce data in new ways.”


Publication Date: 10/13/2016

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