The study, titled "College Blackout," argues that the proposed system, the Student Unit Recording System, would allow a more nuanced approach to studying the value of higher education. This requires knowing the life story of every student and tracking information like income after college and major simultaneously. The data already exists, the study argues, though spread out across a number of government institutions, like the Social Security Administration and the IRS.
While private institutions and some states keep these records, the study argues that the federal government should have this information pooled in one place.
What currently prevents such a database is a 2008 law that bans the project. "Without the ban," the study explains, "the Department of Education could use student-level data already collected and stored by schools, states, and the federal government; safeguard it; and link it across schools and to other data sources – a structure known as a student unit record data system."
The three main arguments the Gates Foundation paper proposes are that such private information is already in possession of the government, just distributed among a number of federal departments; that only the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU) opposes the system; and that the benefits of having a better feel for the performance of a school outweigh the costs of having the federal government track the career success of millions long after they have graduated.
The villains of the Foundation's story are the heads of the NAICU, who are portrayed as a nefarious lobby of wealthy insiders who overthrow an earnest effort to record data that would hold their institutions accountable. The NAICU fears such a system, the study claims, because it is "largely independent of state money or oversight," which makes the group dependent on tuition dollars. As President Obama threatened to link those dollars that come from federal loans to a student unit record system, the NAICU opposes such a system, the study claims.
That narrative quickly falls apart as soon as the study quotes the chair of NAICU who fought for the ban on the student unit record system, David Shi. Shi suggested that such a system “would put at risk fundamental privacy rights, especially the rights of students to control their academic records.” Upon explaining how the system would work – "For example, educational data could be connected to earnings data from the Social Security Administration and de-identified to provide files to the Department of Education, aggregated by program or institution, that exclude students’ names, Social Security numbers, and other identifying information" – the concerns are clear.
The study attempts to dispel these concerns by arguing that a secure system is needed to protect against hackers, to "to establish procedures that would limit the potential for hacking, theft, or inadvertent release of private data."
This misses the point. For those who saw how the National Security Agency was able to listen to 70 million phone calls of innocent Americans in a month, spy on Congresspeople, and track online gamers, hackers aren't the threat. The federal government is the threat, and allowing its reach to expand into decades of one's life in the job market is a legitimate concern, not a fabrication of a cabal of oligarchs.
A Young America's Foundation poll found that 53% of millennials – the age group that would be monitored by the new student unit record system – opposed the NSA's indiscriminate spying vehemently.
Another poll, released this January by the Anzalone Liszt Grove Research firm, finds that this attitude extends to all Americans: 59% of Americans want to see the NSA's current intelligence system reformed to prevent it from collecting data in as prodigious a quantity as it currently does. The problem for Americans with yet another system of government surveillance is not the fact that hackers might get ahold of the information – it's that the government will definitely get ahold of the information.