Rescind Ban on Federal Unit-Record System to Track Students, Report Says

March 11, 2014

A new report by the New America Foundation calls for lifting a five-year-old ban on the creation of a federal database for tracking students into the work force, saying such a system could answer students’ and policy makers’ questions about the value of different degrees.

The report, "College Blackout: How the Higher Education Lobby Fought to Keep Students in the Dark," traces the controversial "unit record" proposal from its origins, in the George W. Bush administration, to the recent Student Right to Know Before You Go bill, which would link individual student records to wage data in an effort to better inform consumers. The report argues that momentum is building for the creation of such a system, despite continued opposition from the private-college lobby.

The report, which was financed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation as part of its "Reimagining Aid Design and Delivery" project, blames the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities for the 2008 ban, accusing it of using student privacy as a bogeyman to thwart federal accountability efforts and to "obscure the outcomes of poor-performing institutions." The report points out that private colleges already share student records with the federal government and with the National Student Clearinghouse.

David L. Warren, the association's president, defended its stance.

"Whatever the speculation about our motives may be, the truth is that our opposition is—and consistently has been—grounded in the concern about the adverse impact such a system would have on student privacy," he said. "We do not believe that the price for enrolling in college should be permanent entry into a massive data registry."

While the private-college association remains opposed to the creation of a unit-record system, organizations representing community colleges and public four-year institutions now strongly support it. The report attributes the shift to self-interest: The groups realize that a federal ratings system is coming, like it or not, and they want it to be based on accurate data. A unit-record system based on all students—not just the first-time, full-time student-aid recipients contained in existing federal databases—could present colleges in a better light than current data do.

The report acknowledges that the ban is unlikely to be lifted outside the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, noting that the bipartisan Student Right to Know Before You Go bill (HR 1937; S 915) hasn’t moved since it was introduced last May. Still, the report argues that the "mere introduction of this bipartisan and bicameral bill … speaks to the changing policy and political winds."