Data Collection Proposal Sparks Controversy


The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) has proposed a substantial change in the way it collects higher education data. The controversial plan would require colleges and universities to provide detailed information about individual students. Proponents say the new "unit record" system is needed to more accurately track students' academic progress, measure retention and graduation rates, and tabulate a school's "net price" – the cost after financial aid is taken into account. They say it would promote greater accountability.


But because social security numbers would be used to match data files, some argue that it would erode privacy at a time when many institutions are moving away from personal identifying information, and that it would require some campuses to change their computer systems to churn out the required information. Paul Duby (Institutional Research) said there would also be a major burden in verifying the accuracy of the data – a process akin to verification of financial aid packaging. But Duby said his biggest concern is that the plan has potential to stifle student access.

"They are talking about rewards and penalties based on institutional performance, which means that schools like Northern, which offers access to underserved populations, would be vulnerable under the new system," he said. "We're even hearing that kind of talk at the state level: 'Why is your graduation rate for baccalaureate students 50 percent and the University of Michigan's 90 percent?' You have to consider the validity of the comparisons. Michigan can be selective. It draws the top 1 percent of in-state students. The academic credentials of our incoming students aren't as strong as Michigan’s, but our mission is different than theirs. And it’s a mission similar to that of Eastern, Central, Saginaw Valley and most of the other Michigan universities.


"Education has long served as an opportunity for success – the path to the American dream. If universities are punished for lower graduation rates because they happen to provide educational opportunities to those less likely to graduate – high-risk, minorities and those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds – this will only squash access. I just don't know who's fighting for the underdog here."


Universities currently provide aggregate data on enrollment, tuition, revenue and expenditures, graduation rates and other measures. Converting to a unit record system would involve collecting additional data on a student-by-student basis. This would enable the U.S. Department of Education to track individuals through their entire academic careers – from tuition and fees paid to loans and grants awarded – regardless of how often they transfer between institutions.

Duby will participate in a Web seminar on the unit record issue on April 5. It is sponsored by the Council on Law in Higher Education.


"Unfortunately, there has been no broad call for input from institutions, even though this is major public policy that could have a substantial impact on higher education. It could be a done deal. Organizations are waking up to the implications of this plan, but it is probably too late."


If Congress votes to reauthorize the Higher Education Act, which contains the unit record proposal, the system could be tested in 2006-07 and be fully operational as early as the 2007-08 academic year.



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Updated: October 26, 2005

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