How the Higher Education Lobby Fought
to Keep Students in the Dark

A Report by the New America Foundation

Searching for Information

With rapidly growing college costs and student debts, selecting the right program, at the right school, at the right price, is becoming a hugely significant life decision. And while many prospective students turn to college guides – like the famous U.S. News rankings – for help, they aren’t finding the answers to their most vital questions. Like how easily graduates from different institutions find jobs, and whether they’ll earn enough to pay off their debts.

The Higher Ed Lobby Closes In

Finding out about the answers to these questions wouldn’t be difficult. In fact, schools, states, and federal agencies already store most of that information. Rather, the problem is that connecting this data and distributing it publicly is illegal. In 2008, largely driven by a small but powerful higher education lobby, Congress banned the federal government from using data that already exist, and passing this information on to the public.

Finding a Common Sense Solution

New research from the New America Foundation, set out on this page, shows that repealing Congress’s Student Unit Record ban would empower students making decisions about college, and reward colleges offering value-for-money educations, while helping to identify diploma mills. It would also help policymakers make better decisions about how to allocate their budgets, while reducing paperwork burdens on colleges.

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College Blackout: An Overview

College Blackout is a new report from Amy Laitinen and Clare McCann at the non-profit, non-partisan New America Foundation. In it, the authors document how the federal Student Unit Record ban came about, and how it impacted on students, parents, and policymakers. They investigate issues of data privacy and security, chronicle shifting political trends, and shine a light on the lobbying and special interest groups responsible for America’s great college information blackout.

Why a Student Unit Record System?

The problems a Student Unit Record system could help to solve.

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A Brief History of the Student Unit Record Ban

How a small but powerful higher education lobby won the day.

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Student Unit Records Already Exist

A variety of secure and effective Student Unit Records already exist.

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Turning Political Tides

Demand for a greater information is growing, and political and business leaders are asking questions.

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Why a Student Unit Record System?

Congress already requires that schools offering federal loans and Pell grants report information to the U.S. Department of Education.

But the current data system is flawed in several ways: it excludes part-time and transfer students, and its many surveys and reporting requirements create huge reporting burdens for institutions.

Worse, because the Department’s system wasn’t designed to look at student-level data, it can’t answer questions about what kinds of students are graduating from specific institutions. Without this information, it is difficult for students, families and policymakers to make informed choices about their higher education choices and investments.

A Student Unit Record system, administered by the Department of Education, could help to solve these problems. How? Consider post graduation earnings. Data stored by the Social Security Administration could be connected with educational data, de-indentified to protect privacy, then aggregated by program or institution, and released publicly.

Such a system would also help reduce institutions’ paperwork, and it would allow institutions and policymakers to examine the results of their budgeting and policy, and design better reform strategies. Most importantly, it would empower students, families and colleges, to answer fundamental questions about college value.

A Brief History of the Student Unit Record Ban

In the early 2000s the Bush administration identified a federally-administered Student Unit Record system, as a solution to onerous reporting burdens, and the need for better information about graduation rates and college value. Later, a bi-partisan commission spearheaded by President Bush’s Secretary of Education, Margaret Spellings, found that a Student Unit Record would help improve college accountability, while protecting student privacy.

thumbs4A Student Unit Record raised the specter of institutional accountability, which didn’t sit well with some in the higher education community. Soon, the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU), a powerful ‘Big Six’ higher education lobby group, began mobilizing.

While private nonprofit college students comprise less than 15 percent of undergraduates, NAICU represents some of the country’s wealthiest and most politically powerful institutions. Graduates from NAICU member institutions fill numerous influential positions in Washington, D.C., and many members of Congress consider NAICU a critical constituency.

NAICU’s outsized influence was on show in 2008: while many of the groups representing public institutions supported the creation of a student unit record system, some tepidly, NAICU opposed it vociferously—and prevailed.

NAICU’s cited student privacy in justifying its lobbying of Congress. And in any data collection privacy and data security are important matters. Still, a federal student unit record would likely strengthen, not hamper, data security efforts. Government entities like the Census Bureau, the  Departments of Education, and the Social Security Administration are experienced in performing data-matching projects, and in protecting extremely sensitive information. Each agency is also subjected to stringent security laws, which impose harsh punishments on officials responsible for data breaches.

Moreover, NAICU member institutions regularly and voluntarily turn over student records to a private organization, the National Student Clearinghouse, which boasts ‘census-level coverage’, and records the personal details of more than 141 million college students and high school seniors – or 98 percent of all students in public and private colleges in the United States.

Claims about concern for student privacy are therefore difficult to countenance. More likely is that NAICU is concerned about institutional privacy: obscuring the outcomes of poor-performing colleges, to prevent students from making different college choices, or the federal government from tying funding to institutional outcomes.

While NAICU was vocally framing conversations about a student unit record around privacy, other ‘Big Six’ higher education lobbying organizations expressed only mild opinions. Most claimed to be opposed to the ban, but failed to organize or lobby against it. One, the American Association of Community Colleges, came under intense lobbying pressure to remain silent on the issue. (They later relented and came out against the ban.)

The umbrella organization for the Big Six, the American Council on Education, which had originally supported the idea of a Student Unit Record, also designated itself neutral, and according to some Capitol Hill staffers, actively lobbied for the ban behind the scenes.

In this climate, implementing the ban was only a matter of time. It was written into a Higher Education Act reauthorization bill by Representative Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), and was signed into law in August 2008. It set the stage for years of complications in designing better higher education policies by keeping students, families, and policymakers largely in the dark.

Student Unit Records Already Exist

Student unit record systems already exist in many forms. And although these systems can’t speak to one another, rendering them unable to produce much useful information about how students are being served, their existence demonstrates two things: that they can be administered securely, and that they can be employed for a variety of helpful purposes.

Last year the federal government issued more than $100 billion in new student loans, and monitored nearly $600 billion in outstanding loans. To administer these federal lending programs, the Department of Education’s Office of Federal Student Aid administers a database of borrowers and receipts, comprised of more than half of all undergraduate students in the country. Congress granted an exemption for this database from its student unit record ban.

The Internal Revenue Service receives large amounts of student-level data through submissions from higher education institutions used to calculate borrowers’ student loan interest deductions and tuition tax credits.

Exhaustive student unit record systems are also used to administer the billions of dollars spent by the federal government annually on programs like the GI Bill. The Department of Defense requires a particular level of academic success for military students to remain eligible for financial support, so it holds rich academic outcomes data.

A number of states have also invested in higher education student data systems, but since most of these systems cannot talk with one another, tracking the outcomes of students who leave their states is complicated. Those states that look at wage outcomes usually rely on unemployment insurance systems for wage information, but these systems exclude federal and military employees and the self-employed. With an increasingly mobile student body, national-level data are needed to understand where students are going and how they are doing.

Case Study: The National Technical Institute for the Deaf

The National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID), housed at Rochester Institute of Technology, provides a poignant illustration of the value of student unit record systems. The NTID receives an annual appropriation from Congress to serve deaf and hard-of-hearing students. Due both to the large federal investment and to the nature of its student body, the Institute has a special responsibility under federal law to prove that it is providing quality instruction to its students. After failed experiments with post-graduation student surveys, the NTID settled on a winning system: it struck up a partnership with the Internal Revenue Service, and later the Social Security Administration, to use Student Unit Record data. As a result, deaf and hard-of-hearing students and their families know what an NTID education gets them compared with similar institutions. The data shows, for instance, that NTID bachelor’s graduates earn around $58,000 on average, while graduates from similar institutions earn around $21,000. And it provides broader details about employment rates (in the case below, student employment rates are depicted at age 50).

  • NTID Bachelor’s Graduates ($58,000)  
  • NTID Associate Graduates ($41,000)  
  • Non-NTID Graduates ($21,000)  
  • NTID Dropouts ($34,000)  
  • NTID Bachelor’s Graduates (78% employed)  
  • NTID Associate Graduates (73% employed)  
  • Non-NTID Graduates (69% employed)  
  • NTID Dropouts (58% employed)  

Turning Political Tides

Since the passage of the 2008 ban, the demand for information that could be provided by a student unit record data system has only grown. Moreover, as stewards of federal resources, policymakers want to know if taxpayer dollars are being well spent. And with growing public anxiety over college costs has generated widespread agreement— across leaders on both sides of the political aisle like Senators Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), to the heads of both the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable— about the need for greater transparency in higher education:

Photos used under Creative Commons licenses: Marco Rubio and Eric Cantor: Gage Skidmore. Barack Obama: Pete Souza. Ron Wyden: CSIS.

rubio1 We have a chance to make sure students and anyone wishing to access higher education to improve their future are making informed decisions about where best to spend their time and money.

—Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.)


Why is it important that we act? Because the current system lacks clear, reliable information about cost and quality, according to the bipartisan Commission on the Future of Higher Education. One South Dakota father of college-age children put it well: “For $20,000 to $40,000 or more per year,” he told USA Today, “there should be a system in place that allows me to kick the tires, look under the hood and compare gas mileage from one model to the next.”

—Margaret Spellings, Secretary of Education (2005-2009)


Going to college is more than an education, it is an investment…As in any investment, you need information

—Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.)


We’re going to start rating colleges not just by which college is the most selective, not just by which college is the most expensive, not just by which college has the nicest facilities – you can get all of that on the existing rating systems. What we want to do is rate them on who’s offering the best value so students and taxpayers get a bigger bang for their buck.

—President Barack Obama

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