Higher education data breach threatens how well policymakers can track student progress

With blue light cast on the photo, a pair of hands type on a laptop. A tablet is seen in the foreground.
The Colorado Department of Higher Education discovered the data breach in June. (Boonchai Wedmakawand / Getty Images)

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A major data breach at the Colorado Department of Higher Education that compromised personal information for tens of thousands of current and former students has also prevented the department from viewing important data.

At least a half dozen reports that advocates and policymakers rely on are delayed, with no clear timeline for completion. That might seem like a minor hiccup compared to the student records breach, but the lack of data analysis creates a blind spot as lawmakers head into the next session.

Keystone Policy Center Senior Policy Director Van Schoales, whose organization helps provide solutions to contentious policy debates, said the data helps advocates frame issues such as low college attendance so they can urgently push for changes.

“This data provides us guidance and helps us analyze what’s working so that we can make more effective investments for students,” Schoales said. “It’s pretty critical for the state’s economic development.”

It’s unclear when the state will be able to access its data, and an internal and criminal investigation is ongoing. The data breach occurred June 19, according to CDHE. The department provided public notification about the cyberattack on Aug. 4. The state had to recreate its databases from backups, according to a September letter to lawmakers.

The breach included names, Social Security numbers or student identification numbers, and other education records, according to the department. People affected includes anyone who went to a Colorado college or university between 2007-20 and or was enrolled in high school between 2004-20 is potentially impacted.

House Education Committee Chair state Rep. Barbara McLachlan, a Durango Democrat, said lawmakers have been briefed on the issues and the department has asked for help from the State Office of Risk Management. Colorado lawmakers often use the information to draft bills.

“We rely on these reports and the fact that all of that could be delayed, there might just be some late bills,” she said. “We just have to be flexible.”

For instance, the state would usually be able to release its concurrent enrollment report, which lawmakers use to determine whether college courses in high school are on track to helping all students. Without such data, making decisions to better the program is difficult, Schoales said.

It’s unclear when the state will be able to issue reports. Affected reports include:

  • The Master Plan dashboard that tracks higher education outcomes statewide and whether Colorado is meeting its goals. The dashboard currently displays information such as which student groups are graduating and with what degree or credential.
  • A report that details how many students are enrolled at Colorado institutions of higher education. The report helps explain enrollment trends.
  • The annual Concurrent Enrollment Report, which shows where and how high school students enroll in college classes. The state has made concurrent enrollment a major focus area as it tries to get more students to college, but without the report, policymakers can’t see gaps or successes.
  • The annual Financial Aid Report that tracks how accessible money for college is for students. Financial aid helps make higher education accessible for more students, and the report tracks what aid students receive.
  • The Post-secondary Progress and Success of High School Graduates report that tracks how Colorado high school graduates do in Colorado’s colleges and universities. The report examines whether students stay enrolled and which programs they graduate from.
  • A remedial and developmental report that tracks whether students need extra academic support in certain subjects once they enter college. The report is important to understand whether high schools are preparing students for college and whether the state’s policy on remedial education is working.

State Rep. Rose Pugliese, a Colorado Springs Republican who serves on the education committee, said Republican leadership sent a letter in late October to the department seeking more information about the breach and urging the state to do a better job notifying residents about it.

She hopes the breach leads to better data security, and worries that it will slow down bills to improve K-12 and higher education.

“We want to make the best decisions possible,” she said, “but we have to do that based on good information.”

Katie Zaback, Colorado Succeeds vice president of policy, said Colorado has a large trove of educational outcome data that shows how programs and policies are working in the state. The nonprofit Colorado Succeeds brings together business leaders to try to help make the education system better.

The reports are only the tip of the data the state collects, with Colorado having one of the richest data collections in the country, Zaback said. The department only publishes a fraction of the information about its programs.

The state would benefit from making more information public, she said.

“I really hope that this spurs an effort to kind of bring together those resources instead of continuing to spread them out, and where information can be shared more broadly,” she said.

Data breaches like in Colorado have become more frequent. Recently, hackers were able to access Jefferson County Schools and Denver Public Schools data. Other school districts, higher education institutions, and education groups nationwide have needed to contend with cybersecurity breaches.

The state has provided a hotline for those affected. You can call 833-301-1346 between 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Victims also can get 24 months of complimentary credit monitoring.

Jason Gonzales is a reporter covering higher education and the Colorado legislature. Chalkbeat Colorado partners with Open Campus on higher education coverage. Contact Jason at jgonzales@chalkbeat.org.

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