Thursday, May 22, 2008

The National Student Clearinghouse

By Richard Vedder

Kevin Carey is one of the best thinkers on higher education issues today. He is bright, reformist, with a genuine concern about making colleges more efficient, more affordable, and better. He wrote a wonderful column in today's INSIDE HIGHER ED, brought to my attention by Charles Miller, a kindred spirit who did a lot of wonderful things himself as chair of the Spellings Commission.

While I agree with the main point of Kevin's article, it is something he revealed that I simply did not know that caught my attention. Before getting to that, Kevin lamented the death of a great idea --integrating student records throughout the school years to allow us to gain greater insight into student performance, learning, migration patterns, etc. While some responsible and thoughtful university leaders welcomed it, the so-called independent colleges (translation of "independent": give us money but leave us alone to do whatever we darn well please) fought the idea tooth-and-nail, lead by their chief lobbyist, David Warren. David was forever blasting Spellings Commissions proposals on this and other things.

The Warren argument is that the proposal would be a fundamental intrusion into privacy. Kevin points out that most schools willingly and frequently share the Social Security numbers of their students through the National Student Clearinghouse in suburban Washington, D.C. with student loan providers. They are being hypocritical to argue "we must protect student privacy" while at the same time sharing numbers with loan providers and sending those numbers to a warehouse in Virginia.

How about doing three things:

1) Require colleges on the federal dole (taking federal grants, students taking Pell Grants or federal loans) to send their student's Social Security numbers to the National Clearinghouse, as most of them already do;

2) Require the National Clearinghouse to send to the Internal Revenue Service and/or the Social Security Administration (the IRS is preferred), the Social Security numbers of all students classified by college of attendance, from 10 years earlier (e.g., in 2008 the Clearinghouse would send the IRS the students attending in 1998);

3) Require the IRS (or Social Security) to publish the median and mean work related earnings of those students of a decade ago, by their college, along with the mean and median earnings of all students by Carnegie classification. Perhaps some additional statistical data would be provided --the earnings at the 25th and 75th percentile of the distribution of students, for example.

This would give the world evidence on how students going to College X are doing a decade later --presumably in most cases 5-9 years after graduation. This would be an important "outcomes" based metric that would help students and their parents pick colleges. This would allow us to truly revolutionize our knowledge about higher education.

And it would not involve invading privacy any more than already occurs, and the colleges themselves would not be privy to the earnings data at the individual level. It would be relatively cheap to implement, and the dissemination of the information to the public would come from any number of persons publishing guides to colleges, university rankings, etc. Yet try to do it!!! I predict David Warren would say that the world as we know it is coming to an end. He would be dead wrong.

1 comment:

tony said...

The information shared by colleges and universities through the Student Clearinghouse is of a personal nature. Not only that, but it is information which will deeply impact each student's futures. As such, it should only be shared when the student consents to it. Right now, this information is shared without students even knowing about it.

There are many great things we could learn by requiring schools to share student information. But this is still personal information. If it affects the student's future, and if it is of a personal nature, it need the legal consent of the student. After all, it is *his* personal information we are sharing.

We can minimize crime by monitoring our citizens' private lives without their consent - better yet, without their knowing about it. We could also allow cops to search suspects without search warrants. We can even require that all citizens have their DNA sampled and recorded for criminal justice purposes, or perhaps to allow insurance companies and employers to bypass those individuals they deem as high-risk.

Why don't we? Because it is an invasion of privacy. When a university commits this invasion of privacy, we are tempted to overlook it, since these organizations have contributed so much to society. But these contributions are not an excuse to invade their own customers' (the students) privacy, and share that information with many organizations without requiring the student's consent.

In addition, the Student Clearinghouse is a for-profit organization. It collects substantial fees each time it provides information on a student (information which is of a personal nature). It profits from the dissemination of students' personal information without their consent.