The Act would also permit the Commissioner for Education Statistics “to promulgate regulations to include additional data elements in the postsecondary student data system, which may include first generation status, economic status, remedial coursework, or gateway course completion.” This list of potential additional data elements is representative, not comprehensive, so additional data about students might be sought as well. Certain data elements are explicitly prohibited from collection, however, including citizenship status, student discipline, and K-12 data. Any data collected under the Act would be subject to data-sharing within the federal government, as the Commissioner would be required to “enter into [data] sharing agreements, with other Federal agencies to create secure linkages with relevant Federal data systems.” If more fields for “additional data elements” were to be added to the postsecondary student data system, then more other federal data systems likely would become “relevant” for data-sharing purposes.
At this early stage, before the Act is even close to becoming a law on the books, it’s impossible to answer questions about the scope of potential additional fields and the required sharing that would result. For instance, if the Act becomes law and rulemaking does add “first generation status” as a data field, would Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) then become an agency with a “relevant Federal data system” that would need to receive this information? The Act would prohibit “any law enforcement activity or any other activity that would result in adverse action against any student, including debt collection activity or enforcement of the immigration laws” based on personally identifiable information in the data system. But would it be “adverse action” specifically against a student if ICE were to use “first generation status” to look for households where people other than the student herself might be residing without legal immigration status or with unlawfully obtained immigration status? The Act would require that the Commissioner “not allow any other Federal agency to use data collected under this subsection for any purpose except as explicitly authorized by this Act,” but one of the purposes of the data system would be to “assist with transparency, institutional improvement, and analysis of Federal aid programs.” That’s a potentially broad charge that could intersect with some of ICE’s work around investigating identity and benefit fraud. Thus it’s not clear that the Act’s purposes, as currently drafted, would completely protect non-student household members from law enforcement or adverse action by other federal agencies based on all potential data types that could go into the postsecondary student data system.
Senator Hatch has offered assurance that postsecondary student data system configuration and operation would “ensur[e] [that] the privacy of individual students is securely protected,” so these types of questions likely will be vetted as the Act moves forward. Hatch and his co-sponsors have already signaled that they are taking student privacy quite seriously by including criminal penalties in the Act for anyone who willfully discloses students’ personally identifiable information “in connection” with the data system, unless the disclosure is authorized by the Act or other federal law. Guilty persons “ shall be fined not more than $5,000, imprisoned not more than 5 years, or both, together with the costs of prosecution.” This type of mandatory criminal penalty on individuals is a marked shift from the primary existing federal student data privacy law, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which does not impose criminal sanctions for student privacy violations.
Reaction from external stakeholders to the Act has been mixed. Some see more benefits than risks; for instance, Data Quality Campaign, understands the Act as “empower[ing] students and their families with the critical information they need to make one of the most important and expensive decisions of their lives.” Others are more focused on the potential privacy and other pitfalls, with some degree of “opposition to a federal data system remain[ing] on the right and the left, based on privacy concerns and philosophical differences over the role of the federal government in higher ed.” The Act has also been introduced with bipartisan backing in the House.
Could the plight of homeless students be improved by visibility? A recent interactive map of New York City schools draws from administrative data to show the percentage of homeless children enrolled. This data offers the potential to raise awareness of the numbers of homeless children attending NYC schools. Response to the new data visualizations could inspire targeted interventions to support these students; however, increased visibility could also lead to stigmatization for those schools with higher percentages of enrolled homeless students.StreetSmart, another effort underway in New York City, aims to better address homelessness by streamlining social services and enabling the sharing of data across government agencies and outreach programs. The promise of StreetSmart is to “not only enable workers to coordinate their efforts, but also give the city government a true overview of the homelessness problem that would enable officials to design interventions based on real data, not rough estimates.” A report by Wired indicates that most homeless outreach and social service systems do not talk to each other, impeding the effectiveness of services. Working within a shared data system could strengthen outreach to individuals and also enable an understanding of the bigger picture: “The big promise of StreetSmart extends beyond its ability to help outreach workers in the moment. The aggregation of all this information could also help the city proactively design fixes to problems it wouldn’t have otherwise seen.” The Wired article does not address how children’s privacy would be safeguarded within the system, but does describe precautions for the privacy of medical information.
Under a new Trump administration policy, the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency is casting a wider net, expanding their focus from those immigrants with criminal records to include any undocumented immigrant. In a New York Times article, Omar Jadwat, Director of the Immigrants’ Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union says: “What it tells me is that the department is willing to put enforcement numbers ahead of any kind of strategy that would actually try to keep us all safer going forward.”A report from the Joan-Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop shows that immigrant Hispanic families are more likely to purchase educational technology for home use, despite challenges in cost and Internet access, prioritizing educational devices over other purchases. The same survey found that 80% of lower income families believed that technology in classrooms can improve quality of education. A study in Hampton, VA finds that students living in Section 8 housing have a higher risk of falling behind in their studies, according to the Daily Press. What stories do data tell about whether colleges enable social mobility for low income students? Richard Reeves and Nathan Joo evaluate current evidence and suggest stronger approaches. The 51st Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences (HICSS-51) Minitrack: Critical and Ethical Studies of Digital and Social Media is accepting submissions through June 15.