The far-left Center for American Progress (CAP) recently sounded another volley in the campaign to collect and share enormous amounts of personal data on American students. CAP argues the federal government should enhance interoperability among its various data networks and modify privacy protections that currently prohibit sharing of information housed in those separate databases. The ostensible benefit would be to give “policymakers and consumers … access to comprehensive information in order to make informed choices about how well colleges and universities are serving their students.”
There’s been an ongoing debate about whether federal law should be changed to allow creation of a “student unit-record system” — a central data repository combining student higher-education data with employment data to track individual students and analyze the correlation between their education and their employment and earnings. The “Student Right to Know Before You Go Act,” sponsored by Sens. Ron Wyden and Marco Rubio, would facilitate this outcome, in the name of advising consumers about colleges and the best (meaning most lucrative) courses of study.
CAP now argues that beyond a unit-record system, much “useful” data already exists in federal databases and could be leveraged with a few tweaks. Considering the existing data pools at the Departments of Health and Human Services, Defense, and Veterans Affairs; the Social Security Administration (SSA); and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), CAP salivates about the wonders that would result if all this data were traded back and forth with the Department of Education (USED).
For example, the IRS receives information annually from every higher-education institution about, among other things, student and family income levels, scholarships awarded, amounts billed for tuition and expenses, and status as full-time, part-time, or graduate student. The IRS uses this data to verify taxpayer claims for an education tax credit. But, as CAP enthuses, “such data also could be used to produce highly accurate net price information for students by institution — and potentially by program of study — and also by family income level. These data could be combined with available information on students who receive financial aid” to run all sorts of analyses on higher education. Alas, however, USED currently can’t get its eager hands on this priceless information. Something about privacy.
Emmett McGroarty is the American Principles Project’s Director of Education. Jane Robbins is an attorney and a senior fellow with the American Principles Project.