This week, however, the House Committee on Education and the Workforce proposed a half-measure: Release the data, but only on people who borrow money for their education, because they have already offered up personal financial information when applying for financial aid in the first place. The committee chairwoman, Virginia Foxx, Republican of North Carolina, has privacy concerns that keep her from signing on to the bipartisan proposals that would collect postgraduation data on everyone.
Supporters of full data transparency believe that this attempt at a compromise is not enough. Moreover, they do not believe the privacy concerns are real.
The history here is curious, and the New America Foundation, a policy research institute, recounted it in a paper called “College Blackout: How the Higher Education Lobby Fought to Keep Students in the Dark,” a title that probably conveys how the writers, Clare McCann and Amy Laitinen, feel about it.
The pair, who worked in the Department of Education during parts of President Barack Obama’s two terms, write that while President George W. Bush was in office, there was a strong push toward creating a student and graduate data reporting system. The big idea was to give the department a better sense of its own return on investment, given how much money it spends on higher education each year.
The odd thing about the resulting pushback, however, was the lack of unanimity among the higher education lobbying associations. The ones that represent community colleges and big public universities had no unsurmountable concerns with the proposals and support the senators’ efforts today. But one group that represents private schools, the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, opposed the data collection and dissemination efforts.
This opposition reflected concerns about both privacy and security. There was an overarching feeling in higher education that student records were sacrosanct, and deserve protection from snooping politicians and others.
The security concerns were and are more specific: In an era when hackers regularly steal data from both government and private systems, why run the risk that millions of graduates’ incomes could end up in the hands of bad actors?
Advocates for more transparency don’t buy these arguments. After all, the data already exists in other places; the proposals on the table merely seek to connect what has already been collected and do so in a safe, secure, anonymous fashion.
“A lot of the history of man and technology has been about balancing risk,” said Tom Allison, acting director of policy and research at Young Invincibles, a student advocacy group. “When you started a fire to cook food, there was the danger that fire could hurt you. So I welcome this conversation, but let’s not just say ‘Privacy!’ and then stop it.”
One big mystery here is why private colleges would care more about privacy than public or community colleges. New America’s Ms. Laitinen dismisses the concern as a smoke screen by an organization whose members sometimes charge a lot more than their competitors.
“What they really wanted was institutional privacy rather than student privacy,” she said. “They don’t want families to have accurate, comparable data to make one of the most important decisions of their lives.”
Sarah A. Flanagan, vice president for government relations and policy development at the private college association, responded by noting that private colleges have the best outcomes when it comes to college completion. “Our schools have nothing to hide,” she said. “This is a question of at what point, and how, do we change privacy protections in order to take statistically valid information that we have to the next level.”
Answering that question will probably take at least a year of debate. Ms. Foxx’s proposed half-measure this week is just one part of a much larger conversation about dozens of proposed changes that would touch nearly every aspect of how the federal government pays for and regulates higher education.
Ms. Flanagan said her organization could live with the proposal that Ms. Foxx made this week. Ms. McCann of New America is not happy with it.
In my ideal world, every parent and potential student would be able to search program by program, school by school, to see who dropped out, who finished with how much debt, how much progress they were making on repaying the debt and how much the graduates from each program earned years later, on average. Full transparency.
An added bonus would be if we could refine the search to see how low-income Pell Grant recipients did in particular, or minorities. That way families who are themselves in those categories could see how others had done at particular schools.
The senators’ bipartisan proposals could get us there. Ms. Foxx’s idea would not, because it would measure outcomes only for people who borrowed money from the federal government. That would leave out about 30 percent of students, according to federal government figures.
“Unless you’re looking at a more comprehensive full set of data, how are you going to know if students from low-income backgrounds are faring worse than those from high-income backgrounds?” Ms. McCann said.
The outrage component here makes it easy to lose sight of more important concerns. Finishing college in the first place ought to be the primary concern, and it often makes sense to pay more to attend a school where students actually get their degrees and do so in a reasonable amount of time.
Moreover, salaries are not the only things that matter. We want our children to be happy, to find a good fit, to make lifelong friends and build a career network that helps sustain them. But getting a good job is always at or near the top of the list of results when Young Invincibles surveys its members about what they want out of college.
So rather than meekly paying whatever we are told, up to nearly $75,000 a year, all-in, at the most selective colleges, perhaps we ought to be a bit more greedy when demanding data, and more assertive about seeking demonstrated proof of value. Ask administrators for it, and press your elected federal representatives if you would like to see Ms. Foxx and her committee members help create a culture of deep data collection and wide dissemination in higher education.
“Why can’t they get with the 21st century?” asked Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities. “What is wrong with giving that data out? They should think about what they would want their own children to have if they were looking at schools.”