The latest version of the Student Right to Know Before You Go Act includes enhanced technology provisions not found in earlier renditions of the bill—a change that has drawn praise from the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.
The National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU) recently praised the Student Right to Know Before You Go Act (H.R. 4479 and S. 2169), citing the bill's "potential to solve the privacy issues that have been central to our concerns with previous proposals" for a new federal student data system. The announcement is a notable development in the ongoing debate over student unit records; that debate is between privacy advocates and those who support the creation of a federal student record database for the purposes of evaluating institutional outcomes.
The Student Right to Know Before You Go Act was introduced in November 2017 and would require the US Department of Education (ED) to establish and maintain a higher education data system that provides the public with student and institutional outcomes illustrated across a variety of statistical metrics. These benchmarks include graduation rates, costs, debts associated with attending the institution, and graduate earnings by program.
In order to protect student privacy, the bill requires the use of technologies capable of encrypting and protecting the information needed to produce these data points, such as secure multiparty computation. Secure multiparty computation is an advanced encryption technique used to generate statistical data based on student information from colleges and universities, as well as the IRS and ED. The bill sponsors note that this technology is capable of protecting "the underlying data, so no entity is forced to 'give up' sensitive information in a form that is accessible to others."
The Student Right to Know Before You Go Act has been introduced during every Congress since 2012, but the latest version requires the use of multiparty computation or other commercially available technologies capable of ensuring that raw data provided by the institution—including personally identifiable information—cannot be accessible through the system to ED or any party other than the reporting entity. It is this update to the bill that prompted NAICU's public support. NAICU has historically opposed other efforts—such as the College Transparency Act—that would create a new student-level data system at ED. The organization asserts that the new technology requirements included in the Student Right to Know Before You Go Act have "the potential to make the assessments policymakers desire, but would do so without creating a federal data repository on each individual US student."
While NAICU lauds the legislation for its new privacy-focused provisions, they conclude their statement with the caveat that "there are still many unanswered questions about the feasibility of the new technology and the capacity of both the Department of Education and colleges to implement the system envisioned by the bill." Policymakers on both sides of the aisle meanwhile remain divided on how to reconcile data privacy concerns with legislative efforts to provide students with more information on college and university outcomes. As this complicated debate around student-unit records continues, EDUCAUSE will keep members apprised of related developments.
Kathryn Branson is an associate with Ulman Public Policy.
© 2018 Kathryn Branson. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License.