How a national student database could cheapen the college experience

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has proposed that the federal government create a national student database that includes information on outcomes for individual college graduates, such as how much money they earn after they get a degree in a particular major. That’s according to a report that a commission sponsored by the foundation released in May 2021.

I asked the U.S. Education Department if they plan to adopt the proposed database, but did not get a yes-or-no answer.

“There are currently statutory prohibitions against the department developing a new national database on student information,” said Melanie Muenzer, chief of staff for the Under Secretary of Education James Kvaal.

Muenzer said the department is reviewing the commission’s recommendations. “We anticipate more conversations with commission members to learn even more,” Muenzer said

In some ways, those “conversations” have already begun. Michelle Asha Cooper, a former member of the commission, now serves as deputy assistant secretary for higher education under Biden.

Why do we need a National Student Database?

As a political theorist who specializes in education policy and its impact on society, I think that a national student database would change the focus of much of American higher education.

Many people understand the university experience as an opportunity for a variety of educational and enriching experiences. I believe this proposed database will shift the focus to ensuring that college graduates earn a certain level of income and wealth. Although the commission says the purpose is to address racism, classism and sexism, I think that it is more accurate to say that the commission wants to frame the value of higher education in largely economic terms.

Defining value

The Gates Foundation created the Postsecondary Value Commission precisely to define the value of a college degree. As commission member Margaret Spellings has said: “people don’t spend $80,000 or borrow lots of money because they want to be better people.”

The report nods to the value of the liberal arts in sustaining a healthy democracy. However, according to commission member José Luis Cruz, the report concentrates on “easily quantifiable measures of value.”

The report creates a framework to rate the economic payoff of colleges, majors and certificate programs. At the bottom of the scale, graduates are not financially better off than if they had simply graduated high school. Higher scores suggest that students of color, students from low-income backgrounds and women are getting an earnings premium. The highest score indicates that a program is helping all of its graduates gain the same wealth as their white, male peers.

Database details

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