Here’s How a Student ‘Unit Record’ System Could Change Higher Ed

May 25, 2017

Al Drago, CQ Roll Call
Rep. Virginia Foxx, now chair of the House education committee, has fought against the creation of a system that could track what graduates earn. But she acknowledges that students need better information to help them choose where to go to college.

Advocates have long argued that students and families need more and better data to make informed decisions about college, including information about the employment outcomes of students. Proposals to repeal the federal ban on such information being published have been bounced around for years, but have not yet seen success. However, a new bipartisan push, announced last week, to overturn the prohibition has breathed new life into the effort and reinvigorated its supporters.

"The present federal data misrepresents fractions of fractions as being complete information. This is wholly inadequate for the needs of students looking to make informed decisions," said Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, after the new push was announced. "Students deserve better."

But what would "better" actually look like?

The U.S. Senate’s version of the "College Transparency Act," introduced by four members of the Senate education committee, would cut red tape for colleges and universities, drastically reducing the number of cumbersome forms they have to submit, the legislators said in a news release. It would also "tell students how others with their backgrounds have succeeded at an institution, and help point them towards schools best suited to their unique needs and desired outcomes." An identical bill was introduced in the House of Representatives by Paul Mitchell, Republican of Michigan, and Jared Polis, Democrat of Colorado.

Opponents of what’s been called a student unit-record system agree that a change is needed, and that students, as well as their families, need better information, but have expressed concern that such record-keeping would be a violation of a federal privacy law.

Though supporters of the new bill do not see it moving outside of a Higher Education Act reauthorization, which has been made less certain by tensions on the Senate education committee, they remain hopeful.

"At some point the drumbeat gets louder than the people calling to keep the ban in place, so it’s matter of time until that starts to overwhelm the opposition," said Clare McCann, a senior policy analyst at New America.

What Would Change?

When the legislation was introduced last week, several advocacy organizations cheered the bipartisan effort. "This bill is another example of great opportunity to address the concerns that students, policy makers, and institutions are raising about not being able to get high-quality comparable information with a reasonable amount of burden," Ms. McCann said.

The bill would require the commissioner at the National Center for Education Statistics to create a student data system — which could take several forms. Language in the bill suggests that the final system would be user-focused and aimed primarily at helping students, Ms. McCann said, much like the College Scorecard.

The system would include all of the data elements that are included in the current Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System as well as information for consumers about what kinds of jobs those in a particular major at colleges land upon graduation and additional outcome data.

The bill would prohibit the system from including identifying data and "health data, student discipline records or data, elementary and secondary education data, exact address, citizenship or national origin status, course grades, religion," and more. It also bars the system from being housed at the Department of Education to avoid the appearance of political motives behind the data that are reported, instead opting for the National Center for Education Statistics.

Once the system is built and the data start being reported, it could be a boon for all involved, Ms. McCann said.

In 2013, California Community Colleges launched the "Salary Surfer," an interactive system that provides estimates of what graduates could be earning two and five years after getting a degree or certificate. By keeping track of earnings data over a number of years, the colleges learned that students "who complete a certificate degree more than double their annual pre-degree earnings after two years in the workforce and nearly triple their pre-degree earnings after five years in the workforce," according to a news release. Though the data are limited to earnings of students who did not continue on to four-year programs, the system offers a glimpse at what could be done on the federal level.

"Students are able to look at that and realize that they can come in and take those classes to make more money," said Amy Laitinen, director for higher education at New America. Colleges, she said, are able to better direct their course strategies to position students for long-term success.

One of the promises of a record system, Ms. Laitinen said, "is that it will really help schools understand the trajectory of students, what works, and what doesn’t — and then they can reallocate the resources towards what works." By being able to quantifiably identify where students are succeeding, and how colleges are preparing them for success, state legislatures would also be better able to hold colleges accountable, she added.

Even some of those who had been fiercely opposed to the unit-record system have acknowledged that better data is needed. Virginia Foxx, chair of the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce, and the author of the original ban, advanced the argument during a speech to the Council for Higher Education Accreditation in January. "Choosing a college or university is an important decision that will have a lasting impact in [students’] lives — it’s so important that individuals have the information they need to choose the right school," she said, adding that oftentimes the available information is misleading or inaccurate. "Streamlining that information," in the overdue reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, she said, "will enable them to make smarter, more informed decisions about their education."

That support for better data, however, puts Ms. Foxx in a tough position, Ms. Laitinen said.

"She’s in a hard place because she is the author of the ban, but on the other hand she certainly understands the importance of answering these questions," Ms. Laitinen said. "She wants the answers to these questions, and she’s also hyperfocused on burden. So, if you want to increase information and transparency while reducing burden, there’s really only one way to get there."

Privacy Concerns

One of the primary opponents of a student unit-record system has been the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, an advocacy organization for private, nonprofit higher-education institutions. The association agrees that students deserve better information but says that the release of data on this large of a scale is a violation of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or Ferpa.

The bill, as proposed, includes provisions requiring the commissioner of education statistics to ensure that privacy guidelines are followed. The commissioner is also required to consult with "individuals with expertise in data privacy" to determine "the data elements to be included" in the student unit-record system, as well as how the information is included. The association contends, however, that the violation lies in the act of sharing the information without the consent of students.

"The very concept of creating or turning those files over to the federal government is a violation of the whole reason that we have Ferpa," said Sarah Flanagan, vice president of government relations and public policy at the association.

The organization is not worried about what the outcomes would be for its institutions, Ms. Flanagan said, but still has concerns about what information would be shared. "You would also get into this whole question of: What do you want to measure, and how should it be measured? What’s important for families to know, and how do you present it?" she said.

"There is really a place for the federal government in this, but we don’t think we have to completely give away the store to get there," Ms. Flanagan added.

Despite the opposition from the private-colleges group, however, advocates say it is just a matter of time before this bill, or a measure like it, moves forward, and a student unit-record system is realized.

"There’s growing momentum, and this is a significant step forward for helping students make better, more informed decisions," Ms. Laitinen said.

Adam Harris is a breaking-news reporter. Follow him on Twitter @AdamHSays or email him at