Guess What? Congress Wants to Collect Even More Sensitive Student Data

December 1, 2017

by Karen R. Effrem, MD


Amidst of the ongoing battle against the surveillance state that we have chronicled with the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act (FEPA), the College Transparency Act (CTA), and the regulatory gutting of the family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), there is yet another data bill that is now rearing its head.

Senators Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), and Mark Warner (D-Va.) have reintroduced The Student Right to Know Before You Go Act. Like the CTA, in its past iterations this bill has removed the prohibition on the student unit-record system, which would allow the tracking of individual students throughout their college careers and working lives without their knowledge or consent. This proved politically problematic for Senator Rubio during his presidential run.

However, while this year’s version of the bill makes significant strides forward in the realm of data security, it still fails mightily in the realm of data privacy and consent. While not overtly repealing the ban on the student unit-record system and requiring military-grade encryption of the data from the myriad of federal agencies that will be accessed to implement the bill’s requirements, there is still a disturbingly long list of data elements required by the bill that will go into this “new higher education data system.” Below are listed all those elements — elements that are in addition to all of the data that institutions of higher learning are already required to report to the federal government:

  • Earnings [Sec. 4(b)]: “…earnings data components for individuals employed in the United States, including the self-employed, independent contractors, and members of the military, that—(1) are available to the Commissioner of Social Security or the Secretary [of the Treasury, respectively; and…”
  • Military [Sec. 4(c)]: “…the data components relating to the recipients of educational assistance benefits provided directly to servicemembers and veterans under the laws administered by the Secretary of Veterans Affairs and Secretary of Defense, that—(1) are available to each such Secretary; and…”
  • Federal Education Financial Assistance [Sec. 4(d)]: “Beginning October 1, 2020, the Secretary shall provide to the higher education data system the data components relating to individual eligibility for, and receipt of aid from, all Federal student financial aid programs that are necessary for the calculation of the outcome metrics described in section 5 for each year.”

All of this data is to be combined to provide the new metrics required in Section 5 of the bill that are to be reported annually by the Secretary of Education and include this summarized list:

  • All of the student-focused metrics in the Integrated Post-Secondary Student Data System (IPEDS) already gathered and administered by the Commissioner of Education Statistics
  • The percentage of students who receive each and every kind of financial assistance, whether public or private
  • Student completion rates based on the percentage of students who complete the program within 100 percent, 150 percent, and 200 percent of normal program completion time
  • The mean, median and total federal student loan debt of students who receive student aid, of those that graduate, and of those that do not graduate
  • “The loan repayment rates of students who enrolled in the institution, as of 2, 6, and 15 years after the date of program completion or exit…”
  • Student transfer rates…”
  • Transfer student completion rates…”
  • Rates of continuation to subsequent levels of education, including lateral, higher, and lower levels of degree or credential progression, disaggregated by credential sought…”
  • “The percentage of students who receive the degree level they initially sought and the percentage of students who receive a higher degree level…”
  • The percentage of students who drop out of the institution without receiving a degree or credential

Although data security is improved for this bill, much of the data to be contributed by the U.S. Department of Education comes from the infamous FAFSA form that is required for any federal financial aid. Jane Robbins described very well the data privacy and security flaws of this form that contains 108 questions, some of them multi-part, and that has already been breached by hackers. The multiple other data breaches that have occurred with government data, combined with the appalling lack of data security at USED, do not inspire confidence even with the security upgrades in this bill. This is especially true if FEPA, with all of its data linking and sharing between agencies was to become law.

But even if the security was perfect, the bottom line is that there is no consent or justification for further use and combination of American citizens’ highly sensitive data. This system of federal interference in higher education should not be occurring in our constitutional republic. Privacy expert Barmak Nassirian, put it well when he said:

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.

Joy Pullmann at the Federalist also made that very important point in her essay “12 Reasons Congress Shouldn’t Make Lifelong Surveillance The Price Of Citizenship.”

Federal involvement in student loans has contributed to skyrocketing college costs and student debt. We need to get the federal government out of the student loan business and return it to the private sector to allow market forces to make the decisions about these loans. We don’t need more data; we need far fewer federal programs.


Dr. Karen Effrem is trained as a pediatrician and serves as president of Education Liberty Watch and the executive director of the Florida Stop Common Core Coalition.

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