Congress unveils bipartisan legislation to create robust college student data system


A group of bipartisan legislators introduced a bill aimed at modernizing the way colleges report – and make it easier for families and prospective college students to obtain – data about particular schools, including whether students are graduating on time and landing decent jobs.

The College Transparency Act, unveiled by Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, Bill Cassidy, R-La., and Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., last week would provide “actionable and customizable” information by releasing data on enrollment, completion and success measures across higher education institutions and even majors.

The bill would prohibit a college rankings or ratings system, and place limits on law enforcement access to students’ personally identifiable information, according to a fact sheet.

The goal, lawmakers said, is to help prospective college students find a school that is best suited to their needs and desired outcomes.

Warren lent a personal touch to the legislation, explaining that she wasn’t a traditional college student since she dropped out of George Washington University after two years to marry her first husband, Jim Warren. She then enrolled in a commuter college that cost $50 per semester. The anecdote is detailed in her book, “This Fight Is Our Fight: The Battle To Save America’s Middle Class.”

“The way colleges and the federal government currently report student outcomes data would have left me out of the picture,” Warren said in a statement. “The College Transparency Act will patch up the big gaps in college data transparency and finally provide students, families, and policymakers with an accurate picture of how colleges are serving today’s students.”

Hatch added that students need access to reliable information. “Unfortunately, the current college reporting system does not reflect the realities of today’s students, and it leaves many critical questions unanswered,” he said, adding that the bill would “resolve the shortcomings of the current reporting system so that students can make the most informed decisions about their future education.”

The current data system, enacted by Congress in 2008, only tracks full-time college students who start and finish at the same institution. This legislation would update that system by including part-time and transfer students.

Under the new system, institutions would post secure student-level data to the National Center for Education Statistics. The NCES, which collects and analyzes student data under the Department of Education, would be responsible for storing and protecting that information, and then work across agencies to generate post-college outcome reports.

While a group representing community colleges and public universities praised the bill, some Republicans are split about whether the new data system would curtail privacy – or if it’s not expansive enough.

Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., chair of the House education committee, remains fervently against college reporting systems and helped write the federal ban on a student-unit record system in 2008; meanwhile, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., previously co-sponsored a bill to repeal the federal ban on the student-unit record system, according to Politico.

Tech and data privacy experts applauded the bill. The Data Quality Campaign, a nonprofit based in Washington, released a statement that students and families need access to this in-depth data in order to make decisions about colleges and their futures.

“This bipartisan Congressional effort will enable better decisions by students, families, educators, and policymakers as our nation works to better prepare learners for success after high school,” read the statement, obtained by EdScoop.

“If enacted, this bill will empower students and their families with the critical information they need to make one of the most important and expensive decisions of their lives – selecting the postsecondary institution that is the best fit for their career goals.”

Mark McCarthy, senior vice president for public policy at the Software & Information Industry Association, said a “student-centric” data model is the way to go.

“A student-centric education system requires informed decision making by students,” McCarthy said.

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