Colleges' Concerted Campaign for Ignorance

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

December 17, 2012

Four years ago, Congress passed one of the worst laws in the modern history of higher education. Under the title "Database of Student Information Prohibited," the omnibus 2008 Higher Education Opportunity Act barred the Department of Education from creating a "student unit record system, an education bar code system, or any other system that tracks individual students over time."

Supporters of the provision argued that it would protect student privacy and shield colleges from costly federal regulation. But I believe the real reason was far more selfish and sinister: The national higher-education lobby used the guise of civil liberties to prevent public officials from asking honest questions about what, exactly, taxpayers are getting in exchange for their support. And in the long run, this obstructionism has been tremendously damaging to the cause of higher learning.

The federal government provides colleges and universities with an immense and growing amount of money: $155-billion through student grants and loans in 2012 alone. All it asks for in exchange is information about how the money is spent, whether the students graduate, and what kind of degrees they earn.

For decades, that information has been submitted through a cumbersome series of surveys—one for finances, one for graduation rates, one for degrees, and so on. In addition to being inefficient, the surveys are disconnected: Users can see, for example, how many students received Pell Grants at a given institution and how many graduated within six years, but not how many students with Pell Grants graduated within six years. There is also no way to connect survey data from different colleges. So if a student enrolls in one college but eventually graduates from another, the original college gets no credit for that student's success.

The solution is simple. Instead of filling out multiple surveys, colleges should send a single data file to the National Center for Education Statistics with information about individual students. Strict federal privacy laws would prevent student data from ever being released. The center could then calculate graduation rates and other measures internally, with much more nuance and accuracy. That would also save colleges money in the long run, because they would not have to crunch the survey numbers themselves.

Yet when such a student unit-record system was proposed in the years before the enactment of the higher-education law, in 2008, the president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities denounced it as "an assault on Americans' privacy and security in the shadow of the Fourth of July." The president of Gettysburg College took to the op-ed pages, warning that the "potential for abuse of power and violation of civil liberties is immense." The ban on a federal database was offered as a committee amendment by Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) and passed with broad support.

Why did the higher-education lobby paint a modest, cost-saving, information-enhancing proposal as a grave threat to liberty? Because, I believe, it was pursuing a far different agenda. Knowledge is power, and without knowledge of college success, the federal government has little power to hold colleges accountable in exchange for that $155-billion. The higher-education lobby was zealously guarding the privacy of institutions, not students.

Make no mistake: Those fears of new regulation are well founded. The bureaucratic impulse is to control, and the more information Congress has, the more strings it can attach to federal dollars. All kinds of data could be connected to a national student database, like what courses students took and who taught them, how students fared on examinations, what kinds of jobs they got after graduation, and how much money they earned. That information, in turn, would allow researchers to make comparable estimates about the quality of education at different colleges.

Now that a few years have passed, let's take stock of how well the lobby's campaign against data and transparency has gone.

If the goal was to protect students from the danger and indignity of having information about them stored in an enormous database, the unit-record ban has been a miserable failure. Nineteen states have created their own such databases, and 20 more are in the process of building them. More than 3,000 institutions, enrolling 96 percent of all American college students, send individual student records to the National Student Clearinghouse, a private, nonprofit organization founded by the student-loan industry.

The government, meanwhile, has found other ways to gather information. The gainful-employment regulations imposed on for-profit colleges judge programs, in part, on a comparison of students' debt to their income after graduation. To calculate income, the government merged student records from the Federal Student Aid office, in the Education Department, with wage records from the Social Security Administration.

We already live in a world of big databases—they're unavoidable. The question is whether we're going to use them to improve higher education. And while none of these other databases have resulted in the privacy breaches warned of by doomsayers, they weren't designed for fair, nuanced, nationwide analyses of college performance. State databases are idiosyncratic and state-specific. The National Student Clearinghouse won't release data that make its clients—individual colleges—look bad. That's why we need the National Center for Education Statistics, the Fort Knox of education data, to house in one place the student records that already exist.

The honest argument against this is that it would expose some institutions and programs as failures. But what, exactly, would the consequence of that be? The Higher Education Opportunity Act became law on August 14, 2008. One month later, Wall Street imploded, causing a recession from which we have yet to fully recover. State revenues nose-dived, and when the time came for budget cutting, higher education took a disproportionate hit.

College leaders argued in vain that draconian cuts would diminish the quality of education. But what evidence demonstrates that they were right? Not much. There's little comparable public evidence of college performance, good or bad. To get that kind of evidence, you need a sophisticated database based on the performance of individual college students—precisely the database that the higher-education lobby made illegal.

Higher education is haunted by its historic opposition to information and accountability. Without evidence of a link between funding and results, politicians have free rein to cut allocations without fear of consequence. And that's precisely what they've done.

College leaders have a weakness for one another. They may compete for students, scholars, grants, and prestige, but they are loath to acknowledge inadequacy (or worse) outside of the tribe. It may seem like an act of collegiality to stand with badly performing peers against the forces of government regulation. But it is increasingly an act of self-sabotage as well. Higher education can mend the fraying bonds of public commitment only if it is willing to subject itself to a much greater level of scrutiny. That means supporting the information infrastructure needed to make that scrutiny as sophisticated and empirical as possible.

Fortunately, the political winds may have shifted since 2008. President Obama has been a staunch advocate for better information about higher education. And Representative Foxx, who chairs the House subcommittee on higher education now, recently said of colleges, "We have so much data and we seem to know so little. What a tragedy for all the money that we are spending in this country."

Last month the House majority leader, Eric Cantor, said in a letter to his Republican colleagues that the federal government must make it "easier for parents and students to make informed decisions" about choosing colleges. And a likely 2016 presidential candidate, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), has joined with his Senate colleague Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) to support a bipartisan bill promoting the release of student-level information about higher education.

It's time for the higher-education establishment to join those efforts. Opposition to releasing useful data is a losing proposition, in more ways than one.

Kevin Carey is director of education policy at the New America Foundation.