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Proposed Student Database Raises Privacy Concerns

Daily Californian | January 25 2005

UC may soon have to provide the federal government with detailed personal information about students if a new proposal to overhaul the way education statistics are gathered is approved within the next year.

The National Center for Education Statistics, a nonpartisan organization that collects data for the U.S. Department of Education, is searching for ways to more accurately gather educational data to keep higher education institutions accountable for student retention and graduation rates.

“The way we collect data now is inefficient and a lot of students sort of fall through the cracks, particularly those who transfer from one state to another, or who drop out and come back to school,” said Mike Bowler, the communications and outreach director for the Institute of Education Sciences, which oversees the statistics center.

The proposal would overhaul the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, which currently collects aggregate data about institutions as a whole, including fall enrollment, graduation rates and financial aid levels.

The redesign would eschew institutional data in favor of data about individual students—such as names, social security numbers, tuition and fees paid and financial aid received—to more accurately track students throughout higher education institutions.

“The data we get can be used to help make public policy and to improve federal education programs,” Bowler said. “(The center) would keep the data and submit it in yearly reports or something like that, and policy makers could go from there.”

Proponents of the proposal argue that the result of existing data collection techniques is misleading: Transfer students, for example, are now considered drop-outs when in fact they have only switched schools.

However, some wonder if the benefits of more detailed data outweigh student privacy concerns.

“We do not believe that the price for enrolling in college should be permanent entry into a federal registry,” said Tony Pals, director of public information for the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. “We fear that the existence of such a massive registry will prove irresistible to future demands for access and additions to the data for noneducational purposes.”

Still, some higher education officials say the data could prove useful for more effective public policy.

“There are some good aspects of this proposal because when we try to look at information about students, we are stymied because different universities use different types of databases,” said George Blumenthal, chair of the UC-wide Academic Senate. “If we have this information, we in the education system and in the government can better formulate public policy regarding education.”

The new system would hold all of the information regarding the United States’ 16.5 million post-secondary students in a centralized database, replacing the multitude of smaller databases in use today.

Despite the apparent benefits for higher education, Blumenthal recognizes that students’ privacy rights may be at risk with the new system.

“There are legitimate concerns about privacy, especially in a world where we are increasingly worried about protecting privacy,” he said. “In an ideal world, the change would have no negative effect on any individual students. In the long run, any effects on students will probably be positive, but in the short run there may be some breaches of privacy.”

The federal government also recognizes the possible privacy infringements, and Bowler said Congress may have to amend the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which protects the privacy of student education records, to sidestep the privacy risks.

But that may not be good enough for some critics.

“The privacy issue is about a student's right to privacy. The idea that students would enter a federal registry by enrolling in college, and could be tracked for the rest of their lives, is chilling,” Pals said. “The proposal begins to take us down the slippery slope toward Big Brother oversight of college students, and of those same citizens beyond their college years.”

The proposal is currently undergoing a feasibility study to ascertain whether it can or should be implemented. If the study recommends the proposal move forward, it would then require approval from Congress as part of the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act next year.