US colleges hostile to data pooling

November 17, 2006

Universities reject proposal that they share information on student performance. David Jobbins reports

Margaret Spellings, the US Education Secretary, faces opposition to her plan to encourage universities and colleges to share and publish data on student performance.

Ms Spellings announced her plan for a privacy-protected higher education information system after a commission she appointed to report on the future of US higher education called for more transparency and accountability. But the database could prove unworkable as a number of universities plan to boycott it.

David Warren, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, described the plan as "extremely problematic". Writing in National Crosstalk , the journal of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, Dr Warren argues that his members find the threat to student privacy "chilling".

He writes: "For 30 years, federal privacy laws have allowed schools to release student-specific confidential data only with the written approval of the student. We strongly support these laws.

"A centralised national database tracking college students, their academic progress, financial-aid information, enrolment and performance in their careers is profoundly counter to the democratic underpinnings of higher education and American society."

But Charles Miller, who chaired the commission, attacked the "large set of private colleges and universities" for resisting measures to increase accountability - including the record system proposed by Ms Spellings.

"So-called 'private' colleges and universities receive a lot of support from the public, that is, the taxpayer. These institutions receive, on average, an estimated 25 per cent of revenues from the federal Government in the form of financial aid and research funding. In addition, they receive a significant level of state and local support, and they benefit from tax policies regarding earnings and contributions.

"In financial terms, it is difficult to classify most of these institutions as truly private, raising serious issues about transparency, accountability and public trust."

This month, Ms Spellings set out her case for the database to a conference of specialists in post-secondary education in Washington DC. She said: "We expect transparency and accountability for our tax dollars in almost every area of our Government. But in higher education we've invested tens of billions of taxpayers' dollars over the years and basically just hoped for the best."

Absence of information meant that questions frequently asked by families during the college selection process could not be answered. These included the time taken to obtain a degree, its relevance to employment and its cost, she said.

Ms Spelling added that car buyers could compare a full range of models and pricing options. The same transparency and ease should be available to students and families shopping for colleges, especially when one year of college can cost more than a car.

More than 40 states have privacy-protected higher education information systems in place, but they are not helpful for would-be college students.

Ms Spellings pledged that the information would be closely protected. "It would not identify individual students, nor be tied to personal information. Armed with this data, we can re-design my department's existing college search website to answer critical questions such as: How much is this school really going to cost? How long will it take to get my degree?"

The American Council on Education warned that states and colleges were unlikely to want to share their student-performance data or to collect new information. "That is enormously complicated and, politically, probably undoable," said Terry Hartle, senior vice-president of ACE, which represents 1,800 colleges and education organisations.

The department was likely to match federal funds to states' and universities' readiness to "collect and report publicly" data on student performance, Dr Hartle said. He added that the voluntary nature would reduce the likelihood of colleges lobbying against the proposal, but said that few states and colleges would take part in compiling a uniform set of data.

david.jobbins@thes.co.uk

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