Student Unit Record Data System

Student Unit Record (SUR) data systems use student-level data for a variety of purposes. While much of the individual data collected are administrative in nature–e.g. used for registration, enrollment, or financial aid eligibility–the data can be de-identified and connected to help better understand broader institutional, state, or national trends in college outcomes. The individual data systems may capture information on demographics, grades, major area of study, graduation rates, need-based aid eligibility, and student earnings after graduation. Connecting these data and then removing the identifying information can reveal how particular institutions or programs and student demographics are related to outcomes. For example, if information about students’ ethnicity and need-based aid eligibility were tied to their post-graduation earnings, it would be possible to measure which institutions and programs had the most successful outcomes for students of color who received Pell Grants. Currently, no comprehensive federal student unit record system exists to answer questions at a national level. Yet, many of these data already exist in separate databases collected by various institutions and private and public agencies and organizations.


At this time, national data are collected and reported at the institutional level, rather than the student level, to the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). Several other agencies also collect national student-level data related to higher education progress and outcomes. The Department of Education currently has its own student unit record data system: the National Student Loan Data System (NSLDS). NSLDS collects and uses data on all students who received federal financial aid for the purpose of operating aid programs. The Internal Revenue Service collects information necessary to calculate educational tax credits and student loan interest tax deductions. Since military personnel using GI benefits must maintain certain academic standards to remain eligible for aid, the Department of Defense collects detailed academic data on students in the program. The Department of Veterans’ Affairs maintains data on student veterans’ demographics and graduation rates. At this time, data from these various systems cannot be connected to each other and sometimes must be reported multiple times.


In 2005, the National Center for Education Statistics carried out a feasibility study on the possibility of a national unit record system. The feasibility study evaluated proposed changes that would replace the student-level data in IPEDS with existing data. Student-level data would then be used to evaluate trends within particular institutions in order to compare institutions’ performance and would include demographic and identification information (such as Social Security number, ethnicity, and gender), registration and program information (credits attempted, major, dates of attendance), graduation information (status and time to completion), and financial aid (net price paid, sources of financial aid). The study determined that with proper time to implement it, a student unit record system would be feasible but that any reorganization or restructuring of IPEDS would require legislative action and would have to be funded by Congress. Later the same year, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings formed the Commission on the Future of Higher Education, which released a report that included a recommendation to develop a federal student unit record data system.


2008 Student Unit Record Ban

In August 2008, an amendment to ban a federal student unit record system was added to the Higher Education Act reauthorization bill and signed into law. The ban works by preventing individual-level data collected by different agencies from being connected.  For example, individuals’ income history is collected by the IRS, but while the ban is in place, that information cannot be connected with that student’s level of education, college or university, major program, or use of financial aid for college in a national data system.


Student Right to Know Before You Go Act

Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Ron Wyden (D-OR) introduced the Student Right to Know Before You Go Act in February 2012. This bill did not seek to overturn the 2008 student unit record ban, but rather to tie existing state-level student unit record systems together. Institutions would report data to their state, which would then report the data to a third party. The third party would connect all data, add income information, and then report the connected data to the Department of Education. The House version of this bill was also introduced in February 2012 by Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA). The session of Congress in which the bills were introduced concluded without any action taken on either.


In May 2013, Senators Wyden and Rubio introduced a different bill that would repeal the student unit record ban instead of connecting existing student unit record data systems as the 2012 bill sought to do. This new bill called for one, central reporting organization for all institutions receiving funding for federal financial aid. Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA) introduced the House version of the bill. As in 2012, no action was taken on the 2013 bills.


In May 2015, the latest version of the Act was introduced in the Senate by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR). The bill was co-sponsored by Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Mark Warner (D-VA). After introduction and reading of the bill, it was referred to the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. In the same month, the House version of the bill, co-authored by Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA) and Mia Love (R-UT), was introduced. The bill was co-sponsored by Reps. John Carney (D-DE), Trey Gowdy (R-SC), Paul Ryan (R-WI), Susan Davis (D-CA), Jared Polis (D-CO), and Doug LaMalfa (R-CA). The bill was referred to the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. As of this writing, no further action has been taken on either bill.