One Congressman Wants More Federal Data Mining — But Parents Aren’t Fooled


A national coalition of grassroots parent and citizen groups — including the American Principles Project, Education Liberty Watch, and Eagle Forum, as well as 72 state and local organizations from 33 states — recently sent a letter to the U.S. House Education and Workforce Committee on the issue of student data privacy.

The letter expressed some significant concerns with what took place at the committee’s June 28th hearing:

  • The attitude persists that the government is entitled to all manner of student data on American citizens that should follow them from cradle to grave.
  • Legitimate student-privacy concerns only received lip service.

This last issue was discussed in a POLITICO Pro interview with Rep. Paul Mitchell (R-Mich.). Mitchell is newly elected to Congress, but had served as part-owner and CEO of a for-profit college called the Medical Education Center that owns twelve campuses across the country. He is the chief sponsor of the College Transparency Act (HR 2434), the Senate version (S 1121) of which I described in May. This is the new version of the Student Right to Know Before You Go Act that was so problematic for Senator Marco Rubio because it is so harmful to privacy.

The bill’s many problems include the following:

  • It lifts the prohibition on the student unit-record system allowing a dangerous extension of the invasive longitudinal data system.
  • Although the bill initially limits the data collection to those related to college completion and earnings after a college degree and prohibits collection of more sensitive data like religion and political affiliation, the data elements are to be reviewed every five years with others potentially added by the Commissioner of Education Statistics. Also, there is no specific prohibition against the collection of SEL data from curriculum, surveys, or online learning software.
  • Parents and citizens are supposed to be comforted by the fact that data sharing is limited merely to “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.”

In the POLITICO Pro article, Rep. Mitchell tries, but fails, to justify this outrageous expansion of government surveillance of American citizens. Here are several inconsistencies:

  • If he “do[es] not support in any way shape or form creating a student unit record [system],” why is there a need to specifically remove the prohibition on that system as his bill does in Section 3? Saying one does not support something that one’s bill specifically allows is like claiming that one is a little bit pregnant. If the prohibition is removed, the federal data mining bureaucracy is highly likely to create the student unit-record. Legislative language speaks much louder than words.
  • If “the data produced under the bill would be aggregated rather than individualized,” why does the bill call for “student level” (personally identifiable information) in Sec. 2(a)(2)(B)(I & ii)? Is he not aware of how easy experts say it is to re-identify allegedly anonymous or aggregate data with just a few data points?
  • Does he really believe after all of the hacking incidents, including the frightening recent data breach of FAFSA, or the deplorable state of student data security at USED, that “there’s every way in the world to protect the privacy of all students in the system while still getting the information… [a]nd there’s technology to do it”?
  • Why does he believe it is the federal government’s right to, by survey or privacy invading data collection, “herd everybody up as a graduation requirement that they all come back at six months or a year later to tell you what they’re doing in terms of their employment”? College costs have risen exponentially due to federal government interference in student loans, particularly during the Obama administration. Rather than gathering more data, perhaps the congressman and his colleagues should look at returning to the previous system of private loans or other means of decreasing that interference.

Rep. Mitchell does not think that reauthorization of the Higher Education Act should go ahead without changes in data transparency and says that this is the bipartisan position of the committee. Given previous statements from committee Chairwoman Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), that does not seem accurate. But if that is the case, then he should expect continued significant pushback from parent and citizen groups across the nation. This is not an issue on which parents will relent anytime soon.

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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