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June 05, 2014 10:43 AM Unit Record Data Won’t Doom Students

By Robert Kelchen

The idea of a national unit record database in higher education, in which the U.S. Department of Education gathers data on individual students’ demographic information, college performance, and later outcomes, has been controversial for years—and not without good reason. Unit record data would represent a big shift in policy from the current institutional-level data collection through the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), which excludes part-time, transfer, and most nontraditional students from graduation rate metrics. The Higher Education Act reauthorization in 2008 banned the collection of unit record data, although bipartisan legislation has been introduced (but not advanced) to repeal that law.

Opposition to unit record data tends to fall into three categories: student privacy, the cost to the federal government and colleges, and more philosophical arguments about institutional freedom. The first two points are quite reasonable in my view; even as a general supporter of unit record data, it is still the burden of supporters to show that the benefits outweigh the costs. The federal government doesn’t have a great track record in keeping personally identifiable data private, although I have never heard of data breaches involving the Department of Education’s small student-level datasets collected for research purposes. The cost of collecting unit record data for the federal government is unknown, but colleges state the compliance burden would increase substantially.

I have less sympathy for philosophical arguments that colleges make against unit record data. The National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU—the association for private nonprofit institutions) is vehemently opposed to unit record data, stating that “we do not believe that the price for enrolling in college should be permanent entry into a massive data registry.” Amy Laitinen and Clare McCann of the New America Foundation documented NAICU’s role in blocking unit record data, even though the private nonprofit sector is a relatively small segment of higher education and these colleges benefit from federal Title IV student financial aid dollars.

An Inside Higher Ed opinion piece by Bernard Fryshman, professor of physics at the New York Institute of Technology and recent NAICU award winner, opposes unit record data for the typical (and very reasonable) privacy concerns before taking a rather odd turn toward unit record data potentially dooming students later in life. He writes the following:

“The sense of freedom and independence which characterizes youth will be compromised by the albatross of a written record of one’s younger years in the hands of government. Nobody should be sentenced to a lifetime of looking over his/her shoulder as a result of a wrong turn or a difficult term during college. Nobody should be threatened by a loss of personal privacy, and we as a nation should not experience a loss of liberty because our government has decreed that a student unit record is the price to pay for a postsecondary education.”

He also writes that employers will request prospective employees to provide a copy of their student unit record, even if they are not allowed to mandate a copy be provided. This sounds suspiciously like a type of student record that already exists (and employers can ask for)—a college transcript. Graduate faculty responsible for admissions decisions already use transcripts in that process, and applications are typically not considered unless that type of unit record data is provided.

While there are plenty of valid reasons to oppose student unit record data (particularly privacy safeguards and potential costs), Professor Fryshman’s argument doesn’t advance that cause. The information from unit record data is already available for employers to request, making that point moot.

[Cross-posted at Kelchen on Education]

Robert Kelchen is an assistant professor of higher education in the Department of Education Leadership, Management, and Policy at Seton Hall University.

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