The Student Data Grabbers Are Back At It Again


The bureaucrats and technocrats who see education as mere workforce preparation and who are devoted to monitoring, tracking and slotting free-born American citizens from womb to tomb in order to create their vision of a planned economy are continuing their dystopian efforts with a new bill.  S 1121, the College Transparency Act, is sponsored by Senators Orrin Hatch (R-UT), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Bill Cassidy (R-LA), and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI).  As if there is need for yet another federal data set, the Postsecondary Student Data System is established to be housed at the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) at the U.S. Department of Education (USED).

The most dangerous part of this bill is the removal of the prohibition on a student unit-record system, which means that individual data can be collected on students after their college careers into the workforce. The purpose of this legislation described to the public is deceptively couched in consumer-friendly terms of “providing more accurate, complete, and customizable information for students and families making decisions about postsecondary education.” However, the real reasons seem to be to further feed the insatiable appetite of the federal data beast:

(i) accurately evaluate student enrollment patterns, progression, completion, and postcollegiate [sic] outcomes, and higher education costs and financial aid at the student level;

(ii) assist with transparency, institutional improvement, and analysis of Federal aid programs;

This bill is supported by all of the usual data grabbing suspects that see students merely as links in the labor market supply chain and education merely as workforce skills development. This includes the Workforce Data Quality Campaign, The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable.

Although somewhat better on the surface than its predecessor, the Student Right to Know Before You Go Act, in that it at least pays lip service to concerns of parents and privacy advocates across the nation that have staunchly opposed this concept, there are several dangerous contradictions in the legislation. Interestingly, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), the sponsor of that bill in the two previous congresses, has not re-introduced or co-sponsored the legislation this time around. Perhaps the APP C rating during his presidential run and criticism from Florida education groups had something to do with that decision.

First, S 1121 initially limits the data elements to those related to college completion, such as “student enrollment, persistence, retention, transfer, and completion measures for all credential levels… within and across postsecondary institutions…” It ostensibly limits collection of particularly alarming and sensitive data elements, such as “health data, student discipline records or data, elementary and secondary education data, exact address, citizenship or national origin status, course grades, individual postsecondary entrance examination results, political affiliation, or religion.” However, the devil is very much in the details, because the bill gives the Commissioner of Education Statistics in consultation with colleges and universities, the ability to review and suggest adding data elements later. In fact, the bill requires a review of the data elements every five years, which could lead to all sorts of new, alleged needs for other data. The collection of social emotional/mindset/non-cognitive /21st Century skills data being pushed by so many different government and private entities is not specifically prohibited in this bill.

Secondly, the bill requires “secure linkages with relevant Federal data systems, including data systems of the Office of Federal Student Aid, the Department of the Treasury, the Department of Defense, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Social Security Administration, and the Bureau of the Census.” Apparently students and parents are supposed to be happy that the legislation prohibits use of this data by other federal agencies beyond these. The bill sponsors are apparently unaware or have chosen to ignore the frightening recent data breach for FAFSA – The Free Application for Federal Student Aid or the deplorable state of student data security at USED.   

Privacy expert Barmak Nassirian said of the idea to remove the prohibition on the individual student unit-record system:

Tracking autonomous free individuals through most of their lives in the name of better information for the benefit of others may be justifiable, but its extremism should at the very least be acknowledged and addressed.

Both Emmett McGroarty and I have also provided testimony against this to the Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking (CEP), which is seeking all sorts of creative ways to expand federal data collection on all U.S. citizens. Among other concerns we raised was the gutting of privacy protections in the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) by regulatory fiat, the lack of consent for this data sharing, and especially the constitutional issues, many of which were agreed with by Liberty Counsel in the letter representing a national coalition of parents groups protesting  mindset profiling in the NAEP.

Here is an excerpt of Mr. McGroarty’s eloquent comments to CEP on the fundamental transformation of the relationship between individual citizens and the federal government:

Such databases make free-born American citizens as objects of research and study. It assumes that the goal of benefitting others in society justifies the powerful federal government to collect and disseminate millions of data points on individuals, often without their express, knowing consent. Moreover, collecting and holding massive amounts of data about an individual has an intimidating effect on the individual—even if the data is never used.  This is even more so the case when the collector has the force of the law behind it.  This fundamentally changes the relationship between the individual and government.  Our republic rests on the idea that the citizen will direct government.  That cannot happen where government sits in a position of intimidation over the individual.

Thankfully, for now at least, both chairpersons of the congressional education committees, Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC) and Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) both oppose lifting the unit-record prohibition, with Rep. Foxx particularly strong in her opposition.  However, as Thomas Jefferson warned, “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” Parents, students and privacy advocates must continue to defend the proper role of the government towards its citizens with government as the servant and not the master.

Karen R. Effrem, MD

Dr. Karen Effrem and her husband have three children. She is trained as a pediatrician and serves as national education issues chairman for Eagle Forum and president of Education Liberty Watch.

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