Editor’s Picks

Despite Divisions, Politicians Rally Around Education Data Collection Initiatives—2019 in Review

By Henry Kronk
December 27, 2019

2019 will hardly be remembered as a year of bi-partisan action. But there is one area in education where politicians tend to agree. 2019 saw action and support for numerous federal education data collection initiatives. But despite expressed support, little action has occurred.

In February Senate HELP Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) delivered a speech at the American Enterprise Institute laying out a range of goals that would hopefully culminate in a rewrite of the Higher Education Act. Those hopes of a vast overhaul have been partially realized. House Democrats introduced the comprehensive College Affordability Act in October, but it is still being debated at the committee level.

One of Senator Alexander’s goals, however, was to expand the Gainful Employment Rule, an Obama Administration policy that sought to provide students more detailed information on for-profit colleges.

Federal Education Data Collection Practices–(Almost) Everyone Wants More

U.S. Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos spent a good deal of efforts early in her tenure to do away with this rule. However, throughout 2019, the DeVos’ DoE made numerous updates to the College Scorecard, an online database created by the Obama Administration to deliver students independent information about institutions of higher ed.

As of November, the College Scorecard delivers new metrics like median earnings and median debt of program graduates. Students can now use the database to compare these and more across public, private, and for-profit institutions.

In May, a bi-partisan group of senators led by Bill Cassidy (R-La.) reintroduced the College Transparency Act. The bill calls for expanding the data collection practices of the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) and including similar information as to that which was later added to the College Scorecard.

In other words, there is wide consensus among a bipartisan group of politicians that American students need to be better informed about the colleges and universities where they plan to study. It’s remarkable, furthermore, that a diverse group of republicans rallied around expanding Obama Administration efforts.

Data Collected by EdTech Developers and Higher Ed Marketers

Other initiatives remain more partisan. In August, a group of three democratic senators—Dick Durbin (Ill.), Richard Blumenthal (Conn.), and Ed Markey (Mass.)—wrote a letter to a large group of edtech developers and student-focused marketing companies asking for more transparency in their data collection practices.

They cite recent surges in hacking attacks of education institutions as a cause for concern and action.

The senators write, “Beyond serious safety and security risks, students have little control over how their data is being collected and used. Students and parents are often unaware of the amount and type of data being collected about them and who may have access to it.”

Republicans have yet to signal similar red flags with the data collection practices of private companies.

There is no time like the present to discuss these worries. Data collection initiatives to support students are aligning more and more with university marketing efforts. The siloing of information is a common charge against university practices. But data collection might represent one area where silos should remain intact.

Many educator-facing marketing companies have been collecting huge amounts of student data in order to model future students’ behavior and sell these insights to interested third parties.

Many universities have begun to conduct similar efforts with the aim of lowering drop out rates and increasing student success. Some have begun to source the data to form these insights from the same suppliers who provide data to marketing companies. Abuses of this practice have already occurred.

While current divisions in the political landscape show no signs of subsiding the actions and lip service paid in 2019 indicate that the U.S. government will continue to provide future students with more information. Marketing efforts to collect and use student furthermore, might be checked as well.

Featured Image: Joshua Sukoff, Unsplash.