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Almost-Law College Transparency Act Would Build Another National Surveillance System

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The federal student data system embedded in this bill is only one conference committee away from President Biden signing it into law.

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Who needs China’s authoritarian social credit system when America is already embarking on its own path to creating a “national student data system” that can secretly track and profile citizens? The College Transparency Act moving swiftly through Congress now aims to collect and share highly personal information about every college student without their consent or ability to opt-out.

According to the bill, the student-level data the federal government collects will include “student-related surveys,” race or ethnicity, age, sex, attendance, program of study, military or veteran benefit status, enrollment and credential status, distance education enrollment status, and federal Pell Grant status. Wait, that’s not all. “[A]dditional data” will be collected and tracked, including but not limited to, economic status, participation in remedial coursework, status as a parent of dependent children, incarceration or confinement status, disability status, and “other” undefined data to be collected as the government later deems necessary.

The CTA was snuck in via a last-minute amendment to the America Competes Act. It moved quickly out of the House on Feb 4, 2022, without a legislative hearing, with only 12 minutes total discussion, and passed by roll call vote. The federal student data system embedded in this bill is only one conference committee away from President Biden signing it into law. That committee is expected to consider this bill soon.

Notably, biometric data, personality data, and behavioral data collection such as facial expression, threat and risk scores, predictive analytics, and social-emotional data are not prohibited in this bill. The CTA also has language that specifically allows third parties to sell student data (page 58): “nothing in this paragraph shall be construed to prohibit third-party entities from using publicly-available information in this data system for commercial purposes.”

The information in this proposed student data system must also be matched and shared with the U.S. Department of Defense, the Social Security Administration, the Census Bureau, the Office of Federal Student Aid (even if the student did not apply for aid), the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Thanks to loopholes and exceptions in the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), these federal agencies can then further disclose student data with other approved agencies and businesses as allowed by law.

They don’t call this “surveillance” in the bill; they call it “transparency.”

The College Transparency Act would create this mandatory national student-level data system to track students throughout college and then “at [undefined] time intervals” after they leave college. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which recently celebrated the CTA’s passage, has a long history of pushing to remove the current federal ban on a national student database. Many Gates-funded groups have also pushed for increasingly broad student data collection and disclosures and sharing of student data without consent.

In 2011, longtime U.S. Education Department attorney turned lucrative consultant Steve Winnick underscored the importance of denying parents the opportunity to opt out by declaring, “We don’t want parents to get in the way,” during a Data Quality Campaign webinar, Winnick’s 2009 email to Aimee Guidera, then of the Data Quality Campaign, detailed their (later adopted) proposed FERPA revisions, making it less restrictive and allowing for more disclosures and State Longitudinal Data Systems. In 2011, the Data Quality Campaign again suggested amendments to make FERPA less restrictive on data disclosures.

The Obama/Biden administration removed informed consent and weakened FERPA in 2008 and 2011, despite much opposition and a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Education. That lawsuit noted “the illegality of the agency’s reinterpretation of the statutory terms “authorized representative,” “education program,” and “directory information.”

Fast-forward to November 2021: The Gates-funded Data Quality Campaign and Chiefs for Change promoted the creation of a national student data system. Is President Biden’s legacy going to be another attack on student privacy by creating this massive nonconsensual national student data system at the behest of Big Tech?

But it’s for the kids, right? Those promoting The College Transparency Act say a national data system is needed to give students and families information about the return on investment in higher education. However, there are already multiple resources for students who are shopping for colleges, such as the Department of Education’s College Scorecard. That was updated in February 2022 to include even more data points enabling students to evaluate a college’s graduation rate, inclusivity, compare student outcomes such as careers, and cost.

As Edscoop reports, “The updated and enhanced College Scorecard shines a spotlight on affordability, inclusivity, and outcomes, over exclusivity and colleges that leave students without good jobs and with mountains of debt. This update reflects the Biden-Harris administration’s commitment to ensuring students remain at the heart of the Department’s work.” The scorecard pulls together college data from federal sources including the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System and the National Students Loan Data System.

Additionally, the Bipartisan Policy Center, a nonpartisan think tank, also funded by Gates and other large donors, recently published their report, “What Colleges are Worth: Institution-Level Return on Investment for Students and Taxpayers,” just days before the updated College Scorecard data were published. Even without the additional College Scorecard data, the BPC report offers students a return on investment calculator and tells students and taxpayers which colleges are worth the investment, as seen by this BPC tweet: “We now know which institutions pay off for students.”

Yet the BPC report also promoted lifting the ban on a national student database. During their February 8, 2022 webinar, (at 1hr, 1 minute mark), the BPC pushed for requiring all students to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, even if they are not planning on applying for federal student aid. As attorney Jane Robbins of the American Principles Project pointed out in 2018, the FAFSA provides bureaucrats a goldmine of student data.

When considering CTA’s national student data system that holds students’ information, think of the potential harm to students if their personal data were misused or breached by an agency or third party. Then also consider that their information, once collected, can be further shared and used without their consent. Existing law H.R. 4174 requires that any data asset maintained in a government database be made shareable and linkable.

“The head of an agency shall, to the extent practicable, make any data asset maintained by the agency available, upon request, to any statistical agency or unit,” H.R. 4174 says. “The Director shall establish a process through which agencies, the Congressional Budget Office, State, local, and Tribal governments, researchers, and other individuals, as appropriate, may apply to access the data assets accessed or acquired under this subchapter by a statistical agency or unit for purposes of developing evidence.”

This national student-level data system is not about evidence; it’s not about transparency. It’s all about surveillance.

The Heritage Foundation recently published a report calling for strong federal privacy legislation that would require opt-in consent before it allows Americans’ data to be shared with any third party, enforceable by a private right of action and penalties. Heritage also highlighted the risks of the “growing fusion between technology companies and the government, the constriction of digital life, practices that target and exploit the next generation of American citizens.” Big Tech is unaccountable, unelected, and should not be directing or dictating government policy for U.S. citizens.

In our race to compete with China, we must also remember it’s not a race to become China. We cannot allow a mandatory student-level, national data system to completely transform U.S. schools into authoritarian spying centers. Remove the CTA from the America Competes Act. Pass federal legislation that returns constitutional, enforceable opt-in consent to all Americans for their own data.

The author is anonymous due to reprisals against the author’s family for the author’s participation in public debate. The Federalist verifies the identities of all anonymous authors.