Legislation Would Expand Data on Student Outcomes

​Federal Data Policy Watch: The College Transparency Act Transparency-v4b.jpg

By Christine M. Keller, AIR Executive Director & CEO

The College Transparency Act (CTA) is bipartisan and a bicameral legislation introduced in the U.S. Congress in May with a stated purpose to “modernize the college reporting system … to provide greater transparency for students, families, institutions, and policymakers.” With potential implications for federal data availability, reporting, and analysis, CTA deserves attention and scrutiny from AIR members as well as the broader higher education data community.


Many within the higher education community have long argued that the federal data infrastructure in the U.S. is fragmented and increasingly inadequate in providing crucial information to students, families, institution leaders, and policymakers. For example, questions such as the following cannot currently be answered in a consistent, comparable way at the national level.

  • What proportion of entering students transfer to another institution and earn a degree?

  • What is the graduation rate of students receiving military benefits?

  • What types of jobs are students getting after graduating?

One reoccurring idea for improving the quality and coverage of postsecondary data is the creation of a federal student-level data system. Such a system is currently banned as part of the 2008 Higher Education Act reauthorization. However, over the past five years, efforts to lift the ban have gained more widespread (although certainly not universal) support among federal policymakers and the higher education community.  

The College Transparency Act (CTA) is the latest legislative effort to overturn the ban and to define a structure for the U.S. Department of Education to develop and implement a student level data network. The bill has gained momentum with four co-sponsors in the Senate and 28 co-sponsors in the House of Representatives, including key members of both the Senate and House education committees. In addition, CTA has received notable support from a diverse set of higher education associations, student and workforce advocacy groups, and institutional leaders.

Key CTA Provisions

  • Removes the ban on a federal student-level data collection, creating a secure, privacy-protected system that would be housed at the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).

  • Replaces the student components of the IPEDS survey and creates comprehensive measures of student outcomes.

  • Requires NCES to coordinate and create secure data linkages between other federal agencies, such as the Department of Treasury, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Social Security Administration, the Office of Federal Student Aid, and the Bureau of the Census, with the intention of streamlining data collection and reporting requirements to the federal government.

  • Requires that NCES develop a user-friendly consumer information website with aggregate data to support students and institutions in their decision-making.

  • Emphasizes privacy and security, limiting data disclosures and policing permissible uses of the data, as well as prescribing data security measures.

  • Emphasizes the importance of community input and requires NCES to seek input from stakeholders in developing the system.

  • Prohibits a federal college ratings or rankings scheme, while including provisions to share data with researchers and colleges for institutional improvement.

Next Steps

The AIR staff will continue to monitor the progress of CTA and share updates with AIR members and the larger higher education data community. AIR is a member of the Postsecondary Data Collaborative and, although AIR has not taken a position on CTA, our involvement in PostsecData offers an opportunity for AIR to engage in dialogue with the larger data policy community on CTA and other postsecondary data work at the national level. To learn more, review the CTA resources listed below.

Additional CTA Resources

  • A collection of policy papers commissioned by the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP) in 2016 on the national data infrastructure and recommendations for improvement.

  • An IHEP policy brief outlining and comparing the legislation efforts related to a student level data system.

  • A report from IHEP that describes the technical, operations, and governance requirements to design and implement a federal student-level data network.

  • Resource documents on CTA from Senator Hatch’s website – one of the bill’s original co-sponsors.

  • Links to the CTA bill text from the Senate S1121 and the House HR2434. 

Input Opportunities

As part of AIR’s efforts to engage more directly in data policy conversations and more effectively share the views of AIR members and their institutions and organizations, AIR will be seeking members to volunteer to serve on a Data Policy Advisory Committee. More information about this committee will be shared soon, including the application process for membership on the committee.

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Total Comments: 2
Serge posted on 10/19/2017 2:25 PM
Prior to massive data breaches at federal government agencies, I favored the development of a student-level data system. Now, I strongly oppose. Some facts:

"According to a new report from systems security specialist Thales e-Security and 451 Research, US federal agencies are facing threats caused by legacy systems, spending and staffing issues.

65 percent have experienced a data breach at some stage in the past with 34 percent having one in the last year. Almost all agencies (96 percent) consider themselves 'vulnerable', with half (48 percent) stating they are 'very' or 'extremely' vulnerable. This number is higher than any other US sector polled for the 2017 Data Threat Report." (see https://betanews.com/2017/04/27/us-government-data-breach/).

Add the recent news that federal agencies (including the NSA !!) suffered data breaches due to use of the Russian Kaspersky software, and it is compellingly clear that this seeming incompetence and sloppiness afflicting federal agency data security management first has to be corrected before opening up the data spigot all the way to the individual student level. Indeed, it is shocking, to say the least, that Congress is asking for a massive increase in data collection without first effectively fixing the massive data leaks that expose millions to identity theft and worse.
Gerry posted on 10/19/2017 4:27 PM
Maybe I am naive but I don't think we need perfect data matches on the statistics for student success. In fact most insttutions are using the National Student Clearinghouse and have a good idea of their own statistics. The most important thing is to get some good definitions of the students to include in the cohort. The devil is in the denominator.
By the way - i hope the clearinghouse is usiing good solid secrity on their matched data.

And Christine - thanks much for attention to this effort. And thank you for creating the Data Advisory Committee. This issue is at the foundation of our craft.