Gates Foundation targets opponents of massive student database

A new report published Tuesday by the New America Foundation criticizes several higher education lobbying associations for standing in the way of a proposed federal database that would provide more expansive data about how colleges are performing.

The report — “College Blackout: How the Higher Education Lobby Fought to Keep Students in the Dark” — outlines the history of a proposal to create a federal student-unit record system, which has been a lightning rod for controversy since it was first suggested by then-Education Secretary Margaret Spellings’s higher education commission in 2005.

Such a database would be able to track students as they move into higher education and through college — or, increasingly, multiple colleges — and into the work force. It would produce more robust information about student outcomes, such as graduation rates and salary information.

Proponents, such as the New America Foundation, say that a student-unit record system would provide a better window into how colleges are performing and allow for more accountability for the billions of dollars in loans and grants that the federal government pumps into the industry each year.

Critics of the database have argued that storing student-level data in a single federal database would threaten student privacy and is too risky. Among the most vocal opponents of the database is the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, which represents private nonprofit colleges and advocated for the ban on the student unit record system that Congress enacted in 2008.

“The private nonprofit higher education lobby bears substantial responsibility for the implementation of the student unit record ban, and for keeping Americans in the dark about how well federally subsidized colleges and universities are serving their students,” the New America report says.