Trust the Education Department With a Student Database? Not Likely.

Justin Renteria for The Chronicle

May 12, 2014

A proposal for a detailed federal database of all college students has once again surfaced, the brainchild of researchers who believe that a major purpose of colleges is to serve as data sources for their own studies, and of policy wonks who think that any nationwide effort worth doing must be owned and operated by the federal government.

The proposed database is a bad idea for at least three reasons.

The first reason for caution is the federal government’s poor track record in handling sensitive personal data. One need look only to the National Security Agency’s lack of adequate security to see that, unchecked, a federal agency can easily stretch beyond its original mandate—with negative consequences for ordinary Americans. The proposed "unit record" database would require every college student to submit extensive personal information to the government as a condition of receipt of federal student aid and college enrollment.

Some advocates believe that the database should also include information about family socioeconomic background, elementary- and secondary-school records, and health records—all of which, they argue, are needed to understand students’ performance in college. Some say, approvingly, that the database could be used to check on IRS compliance or registration for military service. It is difficult to imagine how such a coercive arrangement could protect students’ privacy and adhere to widely accepted principles of research involving human subjects.

Advocates nonetheless argue that the U.S. Department of Education can be trusted to manage a sensitive, high-stakes enterprise. However, when the American Council on Education’s senior vice president, Terry Hartle, questioned the wisdom of basing a ratings plan on the current federal database, widely acknowledged as highly inaccurate, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan dismissed the concern for accuracy as unimportant. Mr. Duncan has not proposed any safeguards to prevent the use of flawed data as the basis for ratings that could be calamitous for colleges.

The second reason is the Department of Education’s repeated unwillingness during the past decade to take seriously any nonfederal efforts 
at data collection, analysis, or assessment. In 2003, well before Margaret Spellings, as secretary of education, called for a federal test based on the Collegiate Learning Assessment, the Council of Independent Colleges had already embraced that assessment process and had assembled a voluntary consortium which quickly grew to 47 institutions that—at their own expense—used it to assess learning outcomes.

Shortly thereafter, several state systems (first Texas, then Missouri, California, and West Virginia) urged their universities to use the Collegiate Learning Assessment, with the states paying the costs. Secretary Spellings and her senior staff were repeatedly informed of those efforts. The council made a case, based on the consortium’s demonstrated success, that no federal mandate was needed to motivate colleges to focus on assessment. The secretary never acknowledged those nongovernmental initiatives and persisted in describing colleges as hostile to assessment and accountability.

Fast-forward to 2013, when Secretary Duncan urged colleges to enroll and graduate more low-income, minority, and first-generation students. The Council of Independent Colleges called to the Department of Education’s attention the overwhelming statistical evidence of the effectiveness of nonelite private colleges in meeting those goals. The counterintuitive truth is that, thanks to the commitment of large amounts of nonfederal student aid, private nonprofit colleges enroll a higher proportion of students from low-income families, relative to overall enrollments, than do public research universities.

What’s more, for Pell Grant-eligible students, the six-year graduation rate at private colleges is 68 percent; at public universities it is 61 percent, and at for-profit institutions a shocking 18 percent. For Hispanic students, the six-year graduation rate at private colleges is 62 percent; at public universities it is 50 percent, and only 34 percent at for-profit institutions. The four-year rates show even bigger differences: 44 percent of Pell-eligible students graduate from private colleges in four years versus 24 percent at public universities. And for Hispanic students the difference is 47 percent versus 23 percent.

Yet the Education Department has not acknowledged the accomplishments of the private institutions, and the secretary continues to describe them as especially resistant to increasing the enrollment of low-income and first-generation students. No policy proposals have been made by the department that build on the proven successes of private institutions.

The third reason for skepticism is the Education Department’s lack of competence in managing the data it already controls—perhaps illustrated best by recent experience with the department’s financial-responsibility test. The test sets standards that private colleges must pass in order to maintain eligibility to award Title IV federal financial aid to students. The department has made those calculations annually since 1998 and, when necessary, quietly penalized institutions that failed the test. Only in 2009 did all of the results become public. Major errors in some 2010 test results, when publicized, caused harm to a number of colleges in admissions, credit ratings, and donations. The colleges protested and did what they could to counter the false judgments, but the department took no corrective action and said it lacked the resources to study and fix the test’s problems.

In response, the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities assembled a task force, which in 2012 produced a report documenting the many shortcomings in the Education Department’s administration of the test and calculation of the scores, and suggesting remedies. Six months later, the department issued a formal response that dismissed the task force’s recommendations.

Those reasons should give pause to those who would entrust the Education Department—which has yet to show that it puts integrity of data and educational excellence ahead of other objectives—with a powerful new student unit-record system.

Richard Ekman is president of the Council of Independent Colleges.