Urgent Action Needed on Student Data Privacy

I am a member of the Network for Public Education, a group started by elder education statesperson, Diane Ravitch.  One of our members sent this message today; I ask you to consider helping with input to elected officials on an issue around student data privacy for higher education.

What we are asking for is an e-mail to the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pension Committee.  The deadline was last Friday but it has been extended to the end of the day (EST) tomorrow, Monday the 27th.  Sample e-mail at the end of this thread. Send them to consumerinformation@help.senate.gov


The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee published three "white papers" on March 23, and solicited comments by April 24 in anticipation of a reauthorization of the Higher Education Act of 1965.

One of the white papers dealt with the question of consumer information and data collection. A coalition of 27 "data advocacy" groups jointly responded to the paper by calling on Congress to lift the "unit record" ban, a move that would allow the federal government to capture, permanently store, mine, and possibly distribute the education records of every student attending a college or university receiving federal funding (regardless of whether the student received funding or not).
Connecting "human capital" data--long a dream of social engineers who approach education as a planning activity--would require a national "unit record" system which would collect and warehouse all education records from all colleges and link individual student records to post-attendance wages, unemployment system, military service, court records, incarceration records, etc. 

If you followed the inBloom story, you know that the Gates Foundation has been a major proponent of developing a unit-record system in higher ed, and has acted through multiple grantees, most notably the Data Quality Campaign, to push for its adoption. 
The idea of a federal unit-record system was first raised more than a decade ago, only to be affirmatively rejected by Congress, which in 2008 imposed a permanent ban on the construction or maintenance of such a system by the Department of Education. 
Unfortunately, the same legislation that banned a federal unit-record system authorized the states to create their own "State Longitudinal Data Systems" (SLDS), provided that they comply with FERPA (an impossibility at the time, since FERPA did not accommodate the disclosures involved). In January 2009,  the stimulus bill dumped $500 million into the lap of governors who were interested in building SLDS (46 were) and in November of that year the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund regs declared that FERPA regs notwithstanding, non-consensual disclosure of personally identifiable information from education records to SLDS would be allowable. 
While this circuitous system of 50 inter-operable SLDS could theoretically accomplish the goals of a federal unit-record system, data "enthusiasts" know that it may never fully replace a single national system, and are pushing for the ban to be lifted. What's worse, they are calling for the ban to be lifted, but for the SLDS to continue to operate as data intermediaries, a crazy notion that would double the privacy harm by unnecessarily allowing SLDS to continue to gain access to PII in the name of populating the federal system.  
End of synoposis.
Sample e-mail to the Committee:

Dear Senator Alexander, Senator Murray and Members of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee,

I am writing in answer to your call for public comments on one of the three white papers related to reauthorization of the Higher Education Act about collection of consumer information.

I strongly oppose the lifting of the "unit record" ban for every student attending a college or university that receives federal funding whether or not the student receives any of that federal funding. 

I am specifically against this idea found on page 12 in the white paper, Federal Postsecondary Data Transparency and Consumer Information Concepts and Proposals.

2. Create an exception under FERPA and allow some new student level data to be collected for all students, including those who do not receive Federal Student Aid, due to the potential power of the data in the market. 

(To note: FERPA has been weakened by its tweaking in 2008 and then again in 2011, which allows more entities to have more access to student data.  FERPA was written in 1974 and is long overdue for a rewrite, not these tweaks.)

I oppose this because I do not want a federal "human capital" data tracking system for our public universities and colleges. I also reject the notion that this will lead to more information for families who are seeking to enroll their student in college.

In 2008, Congress rejected this idea of a unit record tracking system and I urge this Committee to follow suit.


Anonymous said…
From 2013, but seems like a nice short summary of both sides of the data issue:

Two Perspectives on Student Unit Records

dw said…
The "Two Perspectives" article is presented as calm, thoughtful and academic. I suppose it's worth reading, but L'Orange's arguments are weak. He takes the view that we just need more and more and more data, without any regard for the individual or societal costs.

Do we really want our children to grow up in a society where everything they do and everything they have done is recorded and analyzed? At an individual level! Data reporting -- in aggregate -- has many good uses, and should be considered completely separately from records like this, which are intended to be kept for every individual student, even as they continue into the workforce. Is this something parents want for their children?

This data, if it is allowed to be collected, will be incredibly valuable to so many different companies and organizations, that there will be a never ending (irresistible) push to make it more and more widely available. This push is already happening in K-12, and parents are finally starting to push back enough to maybe make a difference. In addition to "legal" access to these records, hackers also want access to this data because it is high value. They are already having success, and the larger the databases, the bigger the targets.

FWIW, the NAICU (National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities) has spoken out against allowing this data to be collected. Their statement can be found here: NAICU HEA Proposal - Consumer Info.

A partial quote:
Tracking an individual’s earnings for years after graduation would require the development of a unit record data system. The federal government has already invested something in the neighborhood of $700 million to set up such systems at the state level, and state governments have invested many millions more. (As background, see this 2009 Fordham Law School study on educational records and associated privacy issues.)
Current discussions seem to be moving away from the statewide systems and toward a national system—the creation of which is prohibited by a provision of the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008. NAICU supported the 2008 prohibition in the interest of protecting student privacy, and we believe the prohibition should be maintained. We do not see the need to re-ignite the debate over student privacy rights; nor do we see the value of investing still more money into building data systems.
Thanks DW; good info.

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