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Legislators are Pushing a Law to Help Students Get Jobs After Graduation

Students are making life-changing college decisions with limited information, but a database created by the controversial College Transparency Act could change all of that.

by Kimberly Lawson
Sep 8 2017, 8:00pm

Images via Wikimedia Commons

When I was trying to decide what college to attend, my mom stepped in and made it easy for me. Basically, she said if I lived at home and commuted to the local university, she'd help me buy my dream car, a Mustang. I essentially based my entire future on the promise of a new ride. Of course, now I know better.

If I were planning on returning to college now, I'd do tons of research. The problem is that there's no one place for prospective students to turn to for the comprehensive data they'd need to make this important decision. For example, one game-changing question a student might want to answer before they agree to invest their time and money in a specific institution is: What's the likelihood of me getting a job after I graduate from this school?

That's why earlier this summer, members of both parties in the House and Senate introduced the College Transparency Act of 2017. The bill would create a secure, privacy-protected student data system at the National Center for Education Statistics that would better compile the information the federal government and institutions are already collecting. Not only would students benefit from this system, but so would policymakers and schools themselves.

"Currently," Michigan Rep. Paul Mitchell said in a statement announcing the filing of the House version in May, "you can find more information about a washing machine you're thinking of buying than you can find about an educational major at a college or university."

The bill would create a secure, privacy-protected student data system at the National Center for Education Statistics that would better compile the information the federal government and institutions are already collecting.

Right now, there is some useful data available on graduation rates and workforce outcome, but it's limited to first-time, full-time students who receive federal aid, such as the Pell Grant. As a result, it's uncertain how transfer students and part-time students fare in college—which leaves out a pretty large part of the student population, considering how many people start off at a community college and transfer to a four-year school or return to attain or finish their degrees while also shouldering family and work obligations.

One of those "nontraditional" students was Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who co-sponsored the Senate's version of the bill. "Going to college opened up a million doors for me," she said in a statement, "but I wasn't a traditional student—I dropped out, got married, then found a commuter college hundreds of miles away from where I'd started. The way colleges and the federal government currently report student outcomes data would have left me out of the picture."


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Another challenge the College Transparency Act would address is the lack of information on the program level. After figuring out where to go to school, choosing a major is the second most important decision a student will make. This is particularly important for low-income students, students of color and other marginalized and underrepresented student groups, said Mamie Voight, vice president of policy research at the Institute for Higher Education Policy, as their choice of career path can ultimately impact their social and economic mobility.

Despite garnering the support of almost 90 organizations, the bill has its critics, who raise concerns about privacy issues.

"We recognize from our research that data is one of the best ways to inform policies, practices, and choices and decisions to help drive upward mobility," she told VICE Impact. "Colleges and universities that are doing a really good job of serving a diverse array of students are often doing so by deliberately using data to inform their everyday decisions to understand how they can best serve students."

Beyond giving institutions and policymakers the information they need to make better serve students, Voight stresses the College Transparency Act is important for the average American. "One way to think about it is that there are students and families across the country who are sitting around kitchen tables trying to figure out which college to go to, what to major in, and what their life is going to look like in the future," she said. "They're working through their monthly budgets trying to figure out how they're going to make college a reality. And right now, they're doing that devoid of information or with really minimal. imprecise or inaccurate information. They're making those decisions without all the tools in the toolbox that they deserve to have when making such a big choice."

Despite garnering the support of almost 90 organizations, the bill has its critics, who raise concerns about privacy issues.

A ban on the creation of such a data system was written into the 2008 reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, and last year, a handful of organizations, including the Parent Coalition for Student Privacy and the American Civil Liberties Union, drafted a letter reaffirming their support of the ban. They expressed fears about "the high probability of breaches and unauthorized access to the data."

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The bill, however, instills a number of provisions to address privacy—they include prohibiting the sale of data or allowing law enforcement to access this information, banning the collection of specific data elements that could be used against vulnerable students, and following industry standards to maintain confidentiality.

In May, Voight testified before the US House Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Development about the importance of establishing a "coherent, student-led data system." In part, she told the committee: "Before making other investments—like buying a home or car—we shop around, we perform inspections, we lift the hood, and we kick the tires. In other words, we ask questions. The college marketplace should be no different."

If you're a student and you think the College Transparency Act is a good idea, or not, you can call your lawmakers and share your opinion —it's S.1121 in the Senate and H.R. 2434 in the House.