Washington Watch: Debate on unit record data system pivots

Community college officials are all too familiar with the inadequacies of the federal government’s data gathering and reporting processes. Indeed, almost all higher education stakeholders decry the current state of national data collection on institutional performance and most sectors, including community colleges with the American Association of Community Colleges’ (AACC) Voluntary Framework of Accountability, have adopted their own, non-federal frameworks.

There has been progress at the national level. For example, the Education Department’s (ED) relatively new Outcomes Measures substantially expanded the government’s data on how community college students and others progress through higher education. However, this framework, which is derived from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), lacks a clean accounting of transfer students and has no link to workforce outcomes.

AACC supports system for better data

To remedy these shortcomings, AACC supports establishment of a federal unit record data system. Such a system would both reduce overall campus administrative costs and generate better data.

To this end, the association enthusiastically supports the College Transparency Act (S. 1121, H.R. 2434), a bipartisan bill introduced by members of the education committee in both chambers of Congress. Many other major higher education associations also have endorsed the legislation.

While there are a few areas AACC would like to see improved in the bill, it has the virtue of creating a national unit record data system that is generally minimalist in its ambitions. Full implementation would substitute for much of the aggregate IPEDS-reported student data (and as often required through the Higher Education Act), without going too far beyond that. It is not a researcher’s dream, but it would provide the basic, disaggregated data necessary to evaluate how students move through college and then into the workforce.

The bill’s privacy protections are robust, though it’s not certain that data breaches could not occur. Also, the data gathered would be limited, and in most respects of a “less personal nature” than those routinely collected on the more than half of all undergraduates who receive federal student aid.

Backing of private colleges

The National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU), the primary association of private colleges, has long and fervently opposed the unit record data system, and successfully advocated to secure a statutory ban against such a system. The primary objection goes along the lines that the simple act of enrolling in college should not perforce surrender of that person’s academic progress data to the federal government. For years, the private colleges have had a formidable ally in House Education and the Workforce Committee Chair Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-North Carolina).

So ears perked in Washington when NAICU recently stated that it would consider supporting the Student Right to Know Before You Go Act (S. 2169 and H.R. 4479). This bipartisan legislation would generate much of the same, and in some cases broader, information required by the College Transparency Act. The key difference is that this bill would not create a national unit record data system. Instead, it relies upon a “secure multi-party computational system” (SMPC) to produce institutional outcomes data. So student data wouldn’t actually flow between entities — it would be encrypted at the institutional level and by other groups, and a third party would use an algorithm to produce the desired variables. The data would never “touch” the federal government or any other party, save a private processor.

SMPC is a relatively new methodology and is unproven in a broad educational context, so it’s a big bet that this would work. However, the fact that America’s private colleges now support looking at a more robust national accounting of the performance of higher education is significant. AACC hopes that in the coming months community college performance will be more accurately reflected by the federal government — and even cost less.

About the Author

David Baime
is senior vice president for government relations and policy analysis at the American Association of Community Colleges.