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The Risk — and Value — of College Transparency

As Congress proposes a new postsecondary data reporting framework to help calculate the worth of higher education, security and privacy issues loom.

As a product of a liberal arts education, it's hard for me to relate to the vocational attitude toward higher ed that seems to be pervasive these days: the assumption that a college degree should lead to a quantifiable result in terms of salary and success in the workplace. Or even that the topics studied should be linked to specific "job skills." The idealist in me thinks that college should rather be about personal growth, about developing the ability to take on future challenges regardless of course of study. An archeology major, for example, could end up landing a job as a product manager at Google (as one of my friends did).

But the pragmatist in me knows that isn't realistic for many people, particularly in this era when the non-traditional student has become the norm. For someone juggling family and work responsibilities, the financial risk of taking on student loan debt to pursue a degree better produce results — preferably monetary — or at least an increase in opportunities. So how does that student figure out what college or program will provide the best return on investment?

That is the driving question purportedly behind the College Transparency Act of 2017, a bipartisan bill introduced last week in the United States Senate and House of Representatives. "Today's students and their families need accurate, accessible, and comprehensive information in order to choose the college that is the best fit for their individual needs," asserted a fact sheet on the bill. "Important information about whether or not a particular college or major pays off for students is currently incomplete. For example, despite the vast majority of students citing finding a good job as their primary reason for going to college, there is currently no easy way to evaluate the labor-market success of various programs or majors …. It's time to modernize the postsecondary data reporting framework in order to more accurately report college outcomes."

The bill proposes a new system to collect student-level data on graduation rates, salary/employment outcomes, etc. And that's where we all should feel a little queasy. Despite the obvious benefits of having access to data that can answer questions about the cost/value equation of higher education, the inherent security and privacy concerns of such a system are significant.

A recent blog post by Christopher Sadler, education data and privacy fellow for the Open Technology Institute at policy think tank New America, outlines many of the issues around how the data might be used, shared and more, and how the bill addresses them. What struck me most was this: "As a privacy protection measure, it is vital that the data be strictly limited to only what is needed for well-defined reporting requirements on student outcomes. If data was never collected in the first place, it can't be misused later," he wrote. "Keeping the data tightly in scope will allay concerns that comprehensive, problematic files are being assembled on students."

I wonder about how the definition of "data in scope" might change over time. And once the data is collected, there it sits, ready to be leaked, breached or worse. Without getting too deep into Big Brother conspiracy theory, there are so many ways for the system to go wrong.

As Sadler concluded, "The benefits of a data system capable of providing students and researchers answers about the worth of higher education would of very high value, but it must be created with a forward-looking stance towards protecting privacy to the highest degree possible." Let's hope the "highest degree possible" is enough.

About the Author

Rhea Kelly is editor in chief for Campus Technology, THE Journal, and Spaces4Learning. She can be reached at [email protected].

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