Congress may create massive program to collect college student data

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“Just think George Orwell, and take it to the nth degree. We’re in an environment of surveillance, essentially. It will be an extraordinarily rich data set of your life.”

Now Congress appears ready to approve the creation of a comprehensive data system that would include the personal information of every student enrolled in college or another higher education institution, and track them after their graduate. The stated goal of the legislation is to ensure that colleges are more transparent about how well they educate their students.

Information collected would include names, age, grades, test scores, attendance, race and ethnicity, gender, and economic status, directly from their colleges, along with other sensitive information pertaining to their disabilities and/or “status as a confined or incarcerated individual.” As the students move through life, this data could be “matched” with personal data from the other federal agencies, including the Census Bureau, the Defense Department and the Social Security Administration.

Activists concerned about student privacy rights are protesting the legislation, called the College Transparency Act. These groups have sent a letter to Congress (you can read it below) explaining their concerns: Parent Coalition for Student Privacy; Children and Screens: Institute of Digital Media and Child Development; Consumer Federation of America; Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC); Fairplay; Me2B Alliance; Network for Public Education; ParentsTogether Action.

In 2014, a controversial $100 million student data collection project, known as iBloom and funded by the Gates Foundation, was forced to shut down because of student privacy concerns — in large part because of the work of activists including New York parent advocate Leonie Haimson. The Gates Foundation is a key player in the push for the college data collection project.

Haimson, who is co-founder of the Parent Coalition for Student Privacy, wrote the following post about the College Transparency Act.

Supporters of the College Transparency Act say privacy concerns are unfounded because student data will be provided in aggregate form.

Haimson says in her piece that there must be less intrusive ways to analyze higher education outcomes and that the data collection system being proposed “would not only be vulnerable to breaches, but also could have unanticipated negative consequences, by discouraging colleges from accepting the highest-need students to boost their ratings, and/or cause them to discourage their students from entering into careers that have great social value, but lower than average salaries, like teaching.”

With practically no public notice and no public hearings, the House of Representatives passed the College Transparency Act (CTA) on Feb. 4, 2022, by slipping it into a much larger unrelated bill called the America Competes Act, intended to better position the United States to compete with China. The bill is now slated to go to conference with the Senate. (You can read the bill here, starting on page 30.)

The CTA would authorize the federal government to create a comprehensive data system that would include the personal information of every student enrolled in college or another higher education institution, and track them through their entire lives, by collecting their names, age, grades, test scores, attendance, race and ethnicity, gender, and economic status, directly from their colleges, along with other highly sensitive information pertaining to their disabilities and/or “status as a confined or incarcerated individual.”

Then, as they move through life, this data would be “matched” with their personal data from the other federal agencies, including the Census Bureau, the Department of Defense, Veterans Affairs, and the Social Security Administration.

No student would be allowed to opt out of this database, and there are no provisions for their data ever to be deleted. Instead, this bill would essentially allow the federal government to create a perpetual surveillance system, vulnerable to breaches and abuse.

This bill would overturn the legal ban on the federal government’s collection of personal student data, otherwise known as a “student unit record” system. The ban was established as a privacy safeguard in the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008, which “prohibits the creation or maintenance of a federal database of personally identifiable student information.”

Yet
the federal creation of cradle-to-grave tracking system has been among the top priorities of the Gates Foundation and many of the groups they fund for years. In September 2016, Dan Greenstein, then the director of the foundation’s postsecondary division, told Politico that “[c]losely tracking student-level data remains at the top of the foundation’s list — something the foundation says can be accomplished by working around the federal government, which is banned from tracking students as they move through college,” although he hoped that “collective efforts could also work as a ‘lever’ to push Congress to reconsider the federal ban.”

The report that the foundation put out at the same time, entitled “Postsecondary Success Advocacy Priorities,” showed clearly that their goal was to overturn this prohibition and allow the federal government to directly collect this data for all children, starting at birth. This report has since been scrubbed from their website but is archived on the Wayback Machine here. It says in part:

GOAL

Support the development of a comprehensive national data infrastructure that enables the secure and consistent collection and reporting of key performance metrics for all students in all institutions [emphasis theirs]. These data are essential for supporting the change needed to close persistent attainment gaps and produce an educated and diverse workforce with career-relevant credentials for the 21st century.

BACKGROUND

In this era of escalating costs and uncertain outcomes, it is important that prospective students, policymakers, and the public have answers to commonsense questions about whether and which colleges offer value: a quality education at an affordable price.

The Gates report included a chart that revealed the overarching and comprehensive nature of the infrastructure it envisioned, in which all “entities” would share their data, including “institutions/providers” before children even entered school, followed by state K-12 systems, colleges, and federal agencies such as the IRS, the Social Security Administration, the Department of Labor, the Department of Defense, etc. Together, this data would be fed into a “National Postsecondary Data System.”

The year before, the Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking (CEP) had been established by Congress, with the stated goal to consider “whether a federal clearinghouse should be created for government survey and administrative data.” The commission first held hearings in Washington, D.C., on October 21, 2016, where many Gates-funded groups, including New America Foundation, Data Quality Campaign, Education Trust and Young Invincibles, testified in favor of weakening or overturning the ban on the federal collection of personal data.

The organization that I co-chair and co-founded, the Parent Coalition for Student Privacy, submitted comments to the commission, co-signed by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Network for Public Education, and other organizations, strongly opposing the overturning of the ban, noting that the potential risks to privacy were enormous from such a huge, centralized, comprehensive system.

The Commission heard many substantive comments about the student unit record ban and received more feedback on the issue than on any other single topic within the Commission’s scope. Nearly two-thirds of the comments received in response to the Commission’s Request for Comments raised concerns about student records, with the majority of those comments in opposition to overturning the student unit record ban or otherwise enabling the Federal government to compile records about individual students.

Nevertheless, the commission recommended that the “Congress and the president should consider repealing current bans and limiting future bans on the collection and use of data for evidence building.”

In the meantime, it recommended the creation of a “National Secure Data Service to facilitate access to data for evidence building while ensuring privacy and transparency in how those data are used. … to temporarily link existing data and provide secure access to those data for exclusively statistical purposes in connection with approved projects. The National Secure Data Service will do this without creating a data clearinghouse or warehouse”[emphasis added].

In any case, in May 2017, a bipartisan group of senators, including Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Orrin G. Hatch (who was a Republican lawmaker from Utah at the time), introduced the College Transparency Act, which would overturn the ban on the federal collection of student data, and instead enable the government to track the employment and outcomes of college students throughout their lives.

Similar legislation w
as soon introduced in the House. As the reporter from Inside Higher Ed pointed out at the time: “While the bill 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 ed.”

And while the CTA was resubmitted annually, there was little action by Congress during the intervening years. Nevertheless, the Gates Foundation and its allies kept pushing this idea, and last May, in yet another report, they again promoted the idea of a “federal student-level data network (SLDN) that provides disaggregated information about all students’ pathways and post-college outcomes, including employment, earnings, and loan repayment outcomes.”

With little warning, a few weeks ago, the CTA suddenly reappeared, at the last minute folded into the America Competes Act (ACA), although the ACA was an essentially unrelated bill focused on increasing the competitiveness of the United States with China. Even reporters who had in the past written about the CTA were not alerted in advance. The Parent Coalition for Student Privacy heard about it from a D.C. insider two days before its passage, and rushed out a news release the day before, with quotes from several different advocacy groups in opposition, as well as Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.).

As Rep. Bowman pointed out:

We have been down this road before and know how people’s personal data can be abused. Under the Trump Administration we saw this play out in the form of ICE stakeouts in our communities that put people in danger of being deported, separated from their families, and having their lives completely destroyed from one day to the next. The College Transparency Act raises serious concerns about how the data of our students can be used and abused.”

The next day, the bill passed the House by a vote of 238-193, with only a few Democrats opposed, including Bowman and two of his colleagues in the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Cori Bush (D-Mo.).

The bill will now go to conference with the Senate. The Senate passed its version of the legislation, known as the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act (USICA), S.1260, last summer. And though the Senate version did not include the College Transparency Act, “supporters of the bill are very hopeful it will be approved by the conference committee that will review differences between the two bills,” according to a recent article.

On March 14, our student privacy coalition released a letter — co-signed by several other national privacy, consumer, education and parent groups — urging Congress not to pass this bill. As our letter pointed out, the bill would authorize the federal government to not only collect a huge amount of personal information, but also add to this nearly any other kind of data in the future, as long as the Department of Education thought it “necessary to ensure that the postsecondary data system fulfills [its] purposes,” although those purposes are not clearly defined.

And we once again emphasized how the risks of such a surveillance system outweighed the potential benefits by far:

Although the CTA’s supporters maintain that creating this massive federal system holds value for prospective students, history shows clearly how this sort of data collection has been used to target and violate the civil rights of our most vulnerable and marginalized individuals and communities. We have also learned that whatever guardrails exist to protect student privacy and anonymity in the current bill could easily be amended in the aftermath of a national crisis, like 9/11, so the CTA data could be used to target current and former students simply because they are a member of a disfavored racial, ethnic, religious, or other vulnerable group. Whatever the value of such a system in terms of promoting accountability for higher education institutions may be, such benefits must be pursued through far less invasive means that do not threaten core American rights and values.

Surely, there are many less intrusive options that could be used to analyze and evaluate higher education outcomes, by using data sampling and use of aggregate data. The existing federal College Scorecard has been enhanced via the collection of aggregate, non-personally identifiable data drawn from colleges, and could be further strengthened by including aggregate data on part-time students, as well as data related to transfer students, contributed by the National Student Clearinghouse, an independent, non-governmental group. This would obviate any need for the federal government to collect and amass personal data from students and follow them throughout their lives.

Such a data system would not only be vulnerable to breaches, but also could have unanticipated negative consequences, by discouraging colleges from accepting the highest-need students
to boost their ratings, and/or cause them to discourage their students from entering into careers that have great social value, but lower than average salaries, like teaching.

The letter we sent to Congress follows.

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