“Big data” in the education context refers to the massive amount of information collected by K-12 schools and higher education institutions on student socio-economics, race and sex, test performance, academic performance, graduation rates, behavior and a myriad of other data points and how they all interact with one another. Collecting and analyzing student data is critical to policy makers and curriculum and instruction developers as institutions try to adopt and support learning delivery in the most effective and economical manner. The National Academy of Education recently released a workshop exploring the challenges for researchers, educators and legislators.

Not surprisingly, the collection of personal data from a captive student audience has led to significant privacy concerns. Congress originally passed the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) to give greater empowerment and protection to students and their families. But the 1974 law was passed decades before the internet and cloud data storage became ubiquitous, and efforts are underway in Congress and the U.S. Department of Education to update FERPA’s requirements.

One such legislative solution is a bipartisan Senate bill called The College Transparency Act of 2017. The College Transparency Act is focused on tapping big data to ensure that student outcome results are accurate when schools report on enrollment, retention, completion, and post-collegiate outcomes. The bill also addresses student privacy protections and security.

The College Transparency Act walks the tightrope between accessing data to enable consumers to make informed decisions about educational options, while at the same time protecting the individual student information that makes up the data system. Finally, it purports to relieve the reporting requirements on institutions of higher education. The National Center for Education Statistics would house the data system created by CTA, with the aspiration that a central repository can best maintain and protect this sensitive and personal information. These are big aspirations, but needed in a world where data is valuable but also subject to abuse and misuse.