Senate bill would establish new higher-ed data system by 2020

A bipartisan bill would revamp the way the Department of Education collects higher-education data and relies on an obscure cybersecurity method to protect student data.

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A bipartisan bill would revamp the way the Department of Education collects higher education data and relies on an obscure cybersecurity method to protect student data

The bill, introduced by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and co-sponsored by Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Mark Warner (D-Va.) would redesign the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System to include a range of statistics and metrics around college performance and student outcomes at individual schools.

"Deciding where to go to college shouldn't be based on guesswork," said Wyden in a statement accompanying the bill. "[This bill] puts the power back in students' and families' hands by giving them the opportunity to make the best possible choices for themselves about where to spend their hard-earned dollars."

Prospective students, parents and policymakers would be able to look up statistics such as a school's reliance on financial aid dollars, percentage of students who went on to graduate, average student loan debt incurred, transfer and dropout rates and post-graduation employment and earnings. It would also continue reporting on the statistics currently tracked by IPEDS, such as enrollment data, graduation rates, financial aid receipts and other student outcome measures, for another five years before being phased out.

The bill would also direct the Department of Education to use an encryption method called secure multi-party computation. The method allows for multiple parties to contribute and share data across the same platform or system without revealing any underlying sensitive or personally identifiable information to others. Documented use cases of the technology's application within federal agencies are scarce, but a background document provided by Wyden's office pointed to its use by countries like Denmark and Estonia as well as the Boston Women's Workforce.

Curtis Dukes, former director of the information assurance directorate at the National Security Agency, said multi-party computation has been around since the 1980s. He called it a narrow field of cryptography, but advancements in computing power and cryptographic technology have allowed for the development of more powerful and practical data-sharing algorithms that can be used in situations where multiple groups must share a common data system but aren't privy to the same information.

"Each party member wants to know the result of the computation…but also wants no other party, including an outsider, to be able to ascertain their contribution," said Dukes, now executive vice president at the Center for Internet Security. "Moreover, a party member expects confidentiality and an accurate computation of the function, notwithstanding if some number them or outsiders act maliciously."

A companion bill was also introduced in the House the same day by Reps. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), Scott Peters (D-Calif.), Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) and Andre Carson (D-Ind.).

It's not the first time that lawmakers or the federal government have attempted to bolster student outcome data. Wyden, Rubio and Hunter have all introduced versions of the bill in the past and in 2015, the Obama administration announced plans for a college ratings systems that would have incorporated similar metrics, but wound up scrapping the idea after colleges and Republicans in Congress balked.

The administration also developed The College Scorecard in 2013 but higher education experts and colleges have complained that the data on the site is incomplete and lacking many meaningful metrics. A Wyden aide said the bill would "strengthen the Scorecard's underlying data by providing more comprehensive information and accounting for more non-traditional students."

Amy Laitinen, director of higher education policy at the New America Foundation, said the growing student loan debt crisis makes collecting and reporting better data around college investments a higher profile issue for lawmakers.

"The drumbeat is getting louder as folks are realizing that student debt is a huge issue, and that while college is certainly worth it on average, students aren't going to 'average schools,'" she said. "They're going to particular colleges and paying particular prices and they have a right to know what to expect on the other end."

Laitinen believes the bill's greatest obstacle are the chairs of the House and Senate education committees – Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-Va.) – both of whom have come out against similar proposals. Additionally, both committees are preparing to release a long-awaited bill to reauthorize the Higher Education Act, legislation that will almost certainly touch on the same issues. Still, Laitinen believes the legislation can help influence the politics of the reauthorization debate.

"Realistically, if this change were going to happen it would happen in the context of the reauthorization, but since [Rep.] Foxx is not going to include it anyway, it's smart to include it and say this is what people want," she said. "The omission will be glaringly obvious."

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