Congress to Reconsider Massive College Student Data Grab


As Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), the powerful chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, approaches retirement in 2020, he and Congress are making one last push to reauthorize the Higher Education Act (HEA). This legislation has been in a stalemate for the last five years. This means that the odious College Transparency Act (CTA – S800/HR1766) that we at The National Pulse, Joy Pullman at The Federalist, The Parent Coalition for Student Privacy, and many others have warned about over the last few years is making a comeback.

Alexander said as much in his Senate floor speech (p. 5720) on September 26th while introducing his HEA reauthorization bill, S 2557, the Student Aid Improvement Act of 2019. Although the CTA is not currently in S 2557, his clear intention stated in that speech is to include it. House sources also indicate that the CTA will be included in the House version of HEA to be introduced in the next one to two weeks.

The CTA would overturn the Higher Education Act’s ban on a student unit-record system, establishing a federal data system containing personally identifiable information (PII) about behavior in post-secondary education (enrollment patterns, progression, completion), post-collegiate outcomes (employment and earnings), and financial aid. This means that simply by enrolling in higher education, a student would be submitting — without notice or consent — to lifetime government tracking of his or her college, career, and financial trajectory.

Here are a few of the many other problems with this privacy invading bill:

  • The CTA would require sharing of private student data among multiple federal agencies, including the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Federal Student Aid; the Departments of Treasury, Defense, and Veterans Affairs; the Social Security Administration; and the Census Bureau (and more may be added). So an individual’s PII can be linked to his tax information, his military information, his Social Security records, and everything the Census knows about him. There are no limits on the purposes for which this data-matching can be used. The administrative state will be able to compile a massive dossier on every American who enrolls in college.
  • Although collection of some sensitive data is currently prohibited, the Commissioner of Education Statistics is required to periodically review data elements and empowered to add more. Also, there is no specific prohibition against the collection of social emotional data.
  • This federal treasure trove of PII would be housed in a centralized database and routinely updated, throughout each subject’s life.
  • The CTA violates many of the widely accepted Fair Information Practice Principles: It takes data without subjects’ knowledge and consent; it contains no right to opt out, or to inspect or correct the data; it includes no mandate for data-minimization; and it has no limits on data-retention.
  • The CTA mentions data security but requires no security audits, encryption, or protocols for detection and notification of breaches. And federal agencies have been notorious for data breaches.
  • The CTA is unnecessary. Information about post-secondary outcomes can be compiled from student and alumni surveys, and any legitimate institution of higher education is happy to share its statistics with the public.

Note: These concerns are available on a one-page handout that may be shared with members of Congress and candidates as they campaign in your states.

The philosophical problems with collecting more data on citizens without their knowledge or consent for the uncertain benefit of others was eloquently explained by Emmett McGroarty in testimony before the Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking:

The philosophical problem with a federal student unit-record system is that it treats free-born American citizens as objects of research and study. It assumes that the goal of benefitting others in society, in vague and theoretical ways, authorizes the powerful federal government to collect and disseminate millions of data points on individuals—without their consent. This fundamentally changes the relationship between the individual and government. 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. 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.

Although there is said to be significant differences between the House and Senate versions of the HEA and much gridlock is happening due to impeachment rancor, it is also true the members of Congress in powerful leadership positions tend to get what they want legislatively before they retire. So if you care about privacy and preventing your child and eventually you from becoming mere cogs in the federal/corporate data system, please speak to your members of Congress about the dangers of putting the College Transparency Act in the Higher Education Act.

We will have more details about alternatives and what is in the House version as they become available. Please stay tuned!

UPDATE (10/21): As this article was being published, the House introduced their HEA reauthorization bill, the College Affordability Act, H.R. 4674, which contains the CTA. Language for this monstrous bill (over 1,100 pages) is not yet available on the official website but is available here from Capitol Hill sources.

The House Democrats say they plan to move this bill through the Education and Labor Committee within two weeks and then vote it off the floor. There are large disagreements between the House and Senate on other elements of this bill, but not on the CTA. Please contact your House member about the CTA now.

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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