Bipartisan Report: Feds Should Connect Student Data While Protecting Privacy

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Today, the Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking released their final report. The Commission was created through bi-partisan legislation in 2016 to “consider how to strengthen government’s evidence-building and policymaking efforts” (page 16). One of the key issues that the Commission heard from advocates on all sides about whether to overturn the current federal ban on connecting education data collected by the federal government in order to provide students, postsecondary institutions, and the public with information that could be used to improve policies or better target federal funding. Education organizations that support overturning the current federal ban on connecting education data collected by the federal government with other data were very excited by the report: among other recommendations, the Commission advocated that Congress consider repealing current bans on the collection and use of data for evidence building. However, the concerns of privacy advocates that appeared in many public comments to the Commission were not overlooked: the word “privacy” is mentioned in the report 408 times (out of 114 pages), and numerous privacy and security protections were recommended by the Commission.

Why Overturn the Ban?

The federal government collects a lot of data in order to do its job. For example, data is collected about students and their parents in order to provide them with financial aid. Some leading education organizations argue that this data is generally not being used efficiently or effectively.

Despite the fact that the federal government collects student-level data from higher education students on demographics, income, assets, and educational attainment as well as federal aid amounts and history through the FSA National Student Loan Data System and Central Processing System, college students are not given the critical information they need to know about how students with similar characteristics perform at certain institutions and the expected employment value relative to the educational cost. In addition to the FSA data systems, the National Center for Education Statistics collects data on an institutional level with information about graduation rates and pricing, but this information does not include transfer and part-time students, who comprise a significant percentage of the student population.

Many education advocates have urged an end to the ban, arguing that this would allow new data uses like allowing students to compare potential colleges, allow postsecondary institutions to report certain student data once instead of multiple times as they do now to various federal agencies, and let taxpayers to know whether money spent on higher education is being used most effectively.

Groups opposed to overturning the ban have primarily raised potential privacy and security concerns, such as the danger of the information being repurposed and used in law enforcement or immigration proceedings, and the recent history of problematic data breaches and inadequate security in some federal agencies.

What Did the Report Say?

The Commission explicitly rejected the presumption that “increasing access to confidential data…significantly increase[es] privacy risk.”

The report advocates that Congress “consider repealing current bans and limiting future bans on the collection and use of data for evidence building” (recommendation 2-5). Despite receiving more comments on overturning the federal ban on sharing federally held education data than on any other issue (page 30), the Commission explicitly rejected the presumption that “increasing access to confidential data…significantly increase[es] privacy risk” (page 1). The report states that “there are steps that can be taken to improve data security and privacy protections beyond what exists today, while increasing the production of evidence” (page 1). The Commission used the Fair Information Practice Principles (FIPPS) as their framework to suggest additional ways to protect information already held by the federal government, and suggested balancing privacy vs public right-to-know interests by weighing:

  1. The potential public benefits of the research project;
  2. The sensitivity of the data that would be accessed in that project; and
  3. “Any risk that allowing access could post to confidentiality” (page 24).

Most significantly for privacy advocates who were concerned that data held at the federal level could be used for purposes they were not intended to be used for (such as for a law enforcement action against, for example, a college student whose information was in the SLDN), the Commission recommended using a pre-existing legal framework to restrict the use of the data for “statistical purposes” only, violation of which would be subject to major penalties under the Confidential Information Protection and Statistical Efficiency Act (CIPSEA) which could include fines and/or jail time.

Practically, this means that data would only be used by certain vetted governmental or non-governmental researchers to show the efficacy of a federal program or federal funding. For example, this would allow the government – and therefore the public – to know how students with similar characteristics perform at certain institutions and the expected employment value relative to the educational cost.

The Commission also discussed how to keep data safe, suggesting several methods to share data and disclose deidentified or aggregated data to the public while minimizing the likelihood of any privacy harms occurring.

What’s Next?

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and Senator Patty Murray said at the press conference for today’s report release that they will be introducing bills in the House and Senate to codify the Commission’s recommendations into law. The report may also improve the chances of passing the College Transparency Act, a bi-partisan bill introduced earlier this year that would overturn the ban while improving the privacy and security of student data held by the federal government. Regardless of the legislative vehicle, the debate about federal collection and use of student data is sure to be an active one in the coming months.

 

This blog is cross-posted at https://ferpasherpa.org/cepreport.