Policy

Bill Offers Alternative Approach to Student Data Collection

abstract crowd of people and data

An organization that has blocked efforts to allow the federal collection of student outcomes data on the basis of protecting student privacy rights has come out in support of an alternative approach being kicked around in Congress. The National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU) issued a statement recently in support of legislation that would bypass the idea of a central federal database but still enable the generation of insights about how students fare after graduation.

Late last year, the Student Right to Know Before You Go Act (S. 2169/H.R. 4479) was introduced by Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR), Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Mark Warner (D-VA). All three have advocated for improved student data collection for various analyses. The bill put forward would establish a data system to allow for "more accurate, complete and secure data" about student retention, graduation and earnings outcomes.

How does this differ from longstanding efforts to legalize development of a federal database that would enable tracking of students throughout their education and post-college careers? The latest proposal references "multi-party computation" (MPC), a method for calculating "values of interest from multiple encrypted data sources without any party having to reveal their private data," as a New America blog post explained. It could be the key, the thinktank proposed, "to providing access to data while providing strong privacy protection." The first practical application of MPC, according to New America, occurred in Europe to calculate prices for the Danish sugar beet market. A decade ago farmers, who balked at revealing the price they'd be willing to sell their produce at, could submit those prices privately through MPC. The MPC protocol calculated the final market-clearing price. At no point in the process was private information revealed.

MPC could go a long way in addressing NAICU's concerns about a federal student-level tracking system, which, the association asserted, would breach the terms of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). "Under this federal law, institutions of higher education are subject to strict privacy requirements in their role as temporary custodians of student records. Congress should not take this essential control away from students and parents," NAICU stated. However, the statement added, "The Student Right to Know Before You Go Act has the potential to make the assessments policymakers desire, but would do so without creating a permanent federal data repository on each individual U.S. student."

While questions still remain about the feasibility of the technology "and the capacity of both the [U.S.] Department of Education and colleges to implement the system envisioned" in the bills, NAICU warned, the association said that it would support "further exploration regarding the cost, effectiveness and feasibility of this new approach."

Currently, both the Senate and House versions of the bill reside in their respective committees.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal and Campus Technology. She can be reached at dian@dischaffhauser.com or on Twitter @schaffhauser.

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