Members of Congress are scheduled to meet today during a special order to revisit and consider legislation that could have potential implications for statewide longitudinal data systems. Called the College Transparency Act, the legislation would overturn the existing ban on the collection of postsecondary student graduation and employment outcomes at the federal level, which was put into place by the Higher Education Opportunity Act. The likelihood of the its passage remains unclear, especially amid data privacy and security concerns, as well as questions about how big of a role the federal government should have in managing student data.
As of November 2016, 37 states and Washington D.C. connect data between at least two of four core educational systems (early learning, K-12, postsecondary and workforce). If student-level postsecondary data were collected and linked nationally, the collection of data at the state and institutional levels could theoretically change. For example, the legislation would require institutions to collect and submit data — in some cases, more than they currently do — as requested by the commissioner for education statistics. Additionally, because a variety of data disaggregation and matching methods are currently used across the 50 states and their institutions, consistent unique identifiers would need to be identified and uniformly used for data to be matched.
While a federal student-level data network would present challenges, it also could benefit policymakers. As highlighted in our recent analysis, data systems allow state leaders and policymakers to explore complex policy issues through the use of effective data connections. A federal system could have similar outcomes, providing policymakers with the data necessary to make informed decisions about federal and state investments in higher education. By counting all students and outcomes, a nationwide system could provide the most holistic view yet of the postsecondary education landscape.
The Institute for Higher Education Policy recently released a policy brief outlining recommendations for a federal student-level data network. The blueprint includes suggestions specifically focused on federal interactions with state systems — for instance, feedback loops from the federal level back to states and institutions. The exchange of such information could help states and institutions track student outcomes more broadly.
States have made significant progress in establishing and improving education data systems in recent years. The creation of an advanced system at the national level could alter how states go about collecting data, and it could also enhance the benefits of connecting data by increasing the amount and depth of information received. It remains to be seen how states might welcome the growing role of the federal government in student data collection. At best, a national system would complement existing state systems. At worst, data governance and privacy issues could hamper useful connections. It will be interesting to see whether the College Transparency Act moves through Congress and how states will respond if it does.