March 1, 2022

Access to Data is Necessary in Determining the True Cost of Higher Education

Monica Konaté
Policy and Advocacy


As more and more students sink into student loan debt and policymakers grapple with how to address institutional quality and accountability, questions about the true value of higher education have taken center stage. For many, it has become clear that determining this value lies beyond a mere calculation of tuition and fees, but instead requires taking a deeper look into data about how students from different institutions and degree programs compare. Luckily, valuations across institutions regarding graduation rates, the ability to repay student loans, and employment status after graduation can easily be made by looking through and comparing student-level data. However, the dissemination of this data by the U.S. Department of Education is illegal.

During the 2008 reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, an amendment was proposed to ban the creation of a federal student unit record system. This bill ultimately passed and, since that time, agencies in possession of individual-level data have been prevented from connecting that data to answer questions about student-level outcomes. To be clear, while it is true that colleges and universities who offer federal loans are required to collect and report on institutional-level data (data that is specific to an institution and not the individual student), this level of data does not adequately capture and evaluate outcomes for students in any targeted way. Instead, this type of information results in fragmented data for large subsections of students including graduate and professional students.

Repealing the student-level data ban would be a game changer for students and families looking to make informed decisions about higher education, particularly those pursuing expensive degrees. Without the ban, agencies like the Social Security Administration would be able to take earnings data, connect it to different programs, and paint an accurate picture of the true earning potential of a specific degree program. Similarly, data from the Internal Revenue Service could be used to determine employment rates after graduation or whether individuals with certain degrees are in better positions to comfortably repay debt. For law students, having this data about employment and earnings after graduation would go a long way in helping to determine whether investing in a J.D. makes financial sense for them.

Opponents of student-level data often cite privacy and security concerns as reasons for forgoing repealing the ban. However, the goal of student-level data has never been about making personally identifiable information accessible. In fact, many of the measures introduced by both chambers of Congress to overturn the ban have included provisions that protect students against privacy violations. Some of those provisions include a ban on the sale of student data, a prohibition on law enforcement accessing this data, and a bar on federal college ranking or rating systems based on collected data.

Many attempts have been made over the years to repeal the ban. Most recently, an amendment modeled after the bipartisan College Transparency Act was offered as part of the America Creating Opportunities for Manufacturing, Pre-Eminence in Technology, and Economic Strength (COMPETES) Act of 2022. This amendment would establish a data system at the U.S. Department of Education to improve postsecondary student academic and economic outcomes by providing disaggregated student-level data to students and families. Nearly 14 years after the ban was established, policymakers on both sides of the aisle understand that improving outcomes begins with open and available data.

The decision to invest in an education should never be one that is made blind-folded, but that is exactly what the student-level data ban accomplishes. Repealing the ban is a step that must be taken to improve academic outcomes and would go a long way in providing students with much needed information to make crucial decisions about their academic futures.


Read our letter to Congress urging them to retain the College Transparency provision in the America COMPETES Act.

Read our letter of support for the College Transparency Act.