Do students currently possess the tools they need to get good value for money out of their education? This question has produced a variety of creative efforts to evaluate the comparative strengths and weaknesses of America’s institutions of higher learning. Lawmakers across party lines are teaming up to hold colleges and universities to account for their student outcomes. Republican Senators Orrin Hatch of Utah and Bill Cassidy of Louisiana have co-sponsored legislation with Democratic Senators Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island to invalidate a ban on Federal tracking of educational and employment results for college students. Their legislation would allow parents, students, and policymakers to get a streamlined, objective picture of the path to graduation, as well as, crucially, job prospects for graduates with specific majors.
These new data-collecting powers would be exercised by the National Center for Education Statistics in the U.S. Department of Education. The Center is currently prohibited from compiling such data by the 2008 reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. The legislation also properly contains privacy safeguards to ensure sensitive student data does not enter the public domain. The bill would also forestall the creation of a Federal Government college ranking system akin to those produced by U.S. News & World Report or the College Board.
This legislation will not pass Congress without scrutiny, nor should it! There are many privacy-conscious lawmakers, prominent among them House Education and the Workforce Committee chairwoman Virginia Foxx, who strongly oppose granting these new powers to the Department of Education. Indeed, Mrs. Foxx helped author the legislation banning this type of data collection back in 2008. Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee chairman Lamar Alexander has also expressed reservations, but he has voiced openness to exploring ways the legislation’s goals can be accomplished without expanding the reach of the Education Department.
This legislation could add important new tools to the arsenal of students and families seeking to make informed decisions about higher education. With the many challenges facing young people in this economy, it is more important than ever that they make prudent higher education decisions. Yet there is great potential for pitfalls. Congress should consider this proposal with all due diligence to ensure student privacy continues to be protected to the greatest extent possible while also giving the public and its leaders the information they need to make evidence-based decisions about which institutions of higher learning they hope to attend.