House Hearing Explores Balance Between Better Student Data and Privacy

By Brittany Hackett, Communications Staff
If the federal government wants to make better informed policy decisions about higher education, it needs to step up its data collection and dissemination efforts, witnesses told a House subcommittee during a hearing on Wednesday.
The hearing, titled “Empowering Students and Families to Make Informed Decisions on Higher Education,” was held by the House Subcommittee on Education and Workforce Development, a subcommittee of the House Education and the Workforce Committee. The hearing focused on how the federal government currently collects, or does not collect, information on various student metrics, such as graduation rates, post-college earnings, loan debt, repayment rates, and how improvements could be made.
In his opening remarks subcommittee Chair Brett Guthrie (R-KY) said that there is currently a mismatch between the information available on the efficacy of the federal student aid system and what students are encountering while enrolled and after graduation, as well as a lack of information on the growing number of nontraditional students. 
“Quite frankly, we really don’t know what is working and what’s not,” Guthrie said, adding that we “need information that properly reflects the circumstances [students] currently face.” 
Rep. Susan Davis (D-CA), the subcommittee’s ranking member, said that the federal government’s “current postsecondary data system does not reflect” today’s typical college student and leaves many students’ experiences unaccounted for. “Given our investment in higher education,” Davis said, “we have a vested interest in ensuring students, colleges, and universities, are serving all of their students well.”
In their testimony, several witnesses encouraged lawmakers to reconsider how, and why, they collect data from institutions, including lifting the current ban on a student unit record, a topic that has been hotly debated in Congress in recent years.
Mamie Voight, vice president of policy research at the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP), said that students and families “can’t answer critical questions” about which institutions and programs they should consider because of insufficient data. And the data will not be forthcoming, due to the cumbersome and duplicative ways data is currently collected from institutions, which she called “inefficient.”
The Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), for example, has been around for over 30 years and was developed “at a different time when we needed different information,” Voight said. The system in its current, cumbersome form cannot answer the questions policymakers need answered, such as who is going to college, where they are going and transferring to, what their enrollment levels are, how much it costs and what kind of student debt they are leaving with, and what their workforce outcomes look like. 
“Students care about outcomes,” Voight said “They want that information about how college will help them achieve their life goals.”
The federal government is “uniquely positioned” to better compile higher education data by creating a secure, privacy-protected postsecondary data collection system, like the one proposed in the recently-introduced College Transparency Act.
“We can protect student privacy while providing students with the information they deserve,” Voight said. “It’s not an either-or choice.”
However, Pepperdine University President Andrew Benton argued against a student unit record, citing concerns about privacy of student data and the security of such a large, federal data system. Rather, he advocated for institutions to be the primary source of data collection for their own institution and students, which they could then share as aggregated information.  He cited the  the University and  College Accountability Network (UCAN) as an already existing model that has effectively done just that.
Mark Schneider, vice president at the American Institutes for Research (AIR), and American Enterprise Institute (AEI) Resident Fellow Jason Delisle offered other ways to improve the flow of data to the federal government, institutions, and ultimately to students and families.
Schneider suggested doing so by merging the existing data systems across the federal government, such as merging the Internal Revenue Service’s (IRS) data systems that contain wage information with data systems under the Department of Education (ED) to better collect data on post-college earnings. This is “an incredibly tedious process,” so Congress would need to have a clear framework for balancing the need for better data with the inherent privacy risks that come with collecting personal data, Schneider said. 
Schneider said that the federal government should look into better collecting program-level data and student earnings, noting that “the outcomes at the program level … [are] driving so much of the wage outcomes that students will experience.”
Delisle, who was testifying on behalf of himself and not AEI, discussed inefficiencies in data collection as it relates to the federal student loan and repayment programs, noting that the data currently collected “leaves much to be desired” and “form only a patchwork rather than a complete picture.”
“The key problem is that the data are running far behind the policy, the exact opposite of how things should operate,” he said. While improvements are being made, “there are still dangerous blind spots in the information accessible to those outside the federal government.”
One solution, Delisle said, is for ED and the Treasury Department to make available the National Student Loan Data System (NSLDS) sample file and the NSLDS-IRS matched sample file in the same way other restricted-use datasets like the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS) data is made available. ED can also overhaul its data collection systems to better capture information policymakers and researchers need to better understand the student loan and repayment programs. 
“Far too much is at stake for lawmakers to be satisfied with the existing data,” he said. “Taxpayers and students deserve better than policies developed through anecdotes and assumptions, and these recommendations offer a straightforward path to get there.”


Publication Date: 5/25/2017

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