House Higher Education Subcommittee Holds Hearing on Improving Transparency in Higher Ed

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(May 26, 2017 – Jennifer Ortega) On May 24, the House Education and the Workforce Committee’s Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Development held a hearing entitled, “Empowering Students and Families to Make Informed Decisions on Higher Education.” The hearing focused on ways to improve transparency in higher education and, as the committee explains, was “part of an ongoing effort [] to strengthen federal higher education policies to better serve students, families, and taxpayers.”

The witnesses at the hearing were: Dr. Mark Schneider, Vice President and Institute Fellow of the American Institutes for Research; Jason Delisle, Resident Fellow of the American Enterprise Institute; Mamie Voight, Vice President of Policy Research at the Institute for Higher Education Policy; and Andrew Benton, President and CEO of Pepperdine University.

Many of the witnesses and members of the subcommittee discussed the flaws in the U.S. Department of Education’s (ED) current system of data collection; specifically, they addressed how data is restricted to only first-time, full-time students who participate in federal student financial aid programs. In their view, this limited information provides a less than comprehensive view of higher education and the success of students at specific institutions. They advocated for an expansion of data collection to include those students who are part-time, who have transferred, and who do not participate in federal student financial aid programs.

Some hearing participants did raise concerns about the appropriateness of collecting data on students not participating in federal financial aid programs. Ms. Voight explained, however, that ED has a role to play in ensuring that the most reliable data on institutions and their programs are available for all students; this can only be done with data from all students at each institution of higher education, she argued.

Additionally, several witnesses claimed that the data publicized by ED is not sufficiently broken down by key factors or categories. They believed that if that data was disaggregated by program and by student demographics, the public, prospective students, and their families would have more reliable information about their potential return on investment. Witnesses also called the current data collection system duplicative, flawed, and unduly burdensome for institutions, which have to relay their information to numerous federal, state, and nonprofit organizations.

One of the most important factors of consideration throughout the hearing was how to handle the privacy of the data collected. As Committee Chairwoman Virginia Foxx (R-VA) explained, the federal government has a "pretty lousy record" of keeping data private. Mr. Benton advocated for the students’ right to opt into data collection, while Mr. Schneider called for a thorough review of the balance of the risks associated with maintaining such a data collection and system with the rewards of collecting and analyzing the data. Ms. Voight called for strongly limiting the access to and use of student data to protect students’ information and ensure their privacy.

The hearing was related to the College Transparency Act (HR 2434 and S 1121), which was recently introduced in both the House and Senate and currently has bipartisan support in both chambers. The bill would eliminate the ban on the collection of student level data by the federal government, as currently maintained under the Higher Education Act. As Ms. Voight pointed out during the hearing, the bill does try to ensure student privacy by establishing strict penalties for misuse of the data, limiting access to and use of the data, and only allowing the sharing of aggregate information, rather than student level data. Nonetheless, Chairwoman Foxx remains opposed to the bill. As Chairwoman and therefore the agenda setter for the committee, her opposition puts a sizable obstacle in the way of the bill’s potential progress.

Jen Ortega serves as a consultant to EDUCAUSE on federal policy and government relations. She has worked with EDUCAUSE since 2013 and assists with monitoring legislative and regulatory proposals across a range of policy areas, including cybersecurity, data privacy, e-learning, and accessibility.