U.S. College-Database Idea Sparks Privacy Worries

By Vaishali Honawar — May 10, 2005 4 min read
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A plan being studied by the Department of Education to create a federal database of all U.S. college students to help improve graduation-rate tracking is raising privacy concerns among students and others.

But backers of the idea say that getting more accurate and complete information on graduation rates and other areas could help improve policy, particularly on financial aid, at the federal and state levels.

Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, the director of the Education Department’s Institute of Education Sciences, which in March did a feasibility study on the plan, says the data collected would also help institutions compare themselves with one another, and help parents and students make better decisions when picking a college.

He points out that 40 percent of students currently do not finish at the same institution in which they first enrolled.

“Many will drop out, work for a few years, and then come back to get their degree, or they may co-register at two institutions at same time,” Mr. Whitehurst said.

The proposed database, which would have to be authorized by Congress, would maintain individual records on some 16 million students from 6,000 institutions of higher education.

While members on the education committees in Congress have so far declined to take a stand on the study, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings is said to be interested in it.

The department’s feasibility study cautions that issues such as student privacy and confidentiality of data would have to be addressed in implementing a database.

Similarly, in precollegiate education, calls have been growing for a tracking system for high school students that would yield more accurate graduation and dropout rates, among other data. An Education Department task force that studied ways to improve the reporting of graduation and dropout rates said in a report last year that uniform state-level student-tracking systems were the solution.

Several states are now working on developing identification systems to track the academic performance of individual high school students, although those systems, unlike the college database as described in the feasibility study, would not include Social Security numbers.

A Better Plan?

Besides Social Security numbers, the federal higher education database would include race and ethnicity, gender, field of study, and characteristics about students’ college progress. (See box.)

Travis J. Reindl, the director of state policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, in Washington, said the idea was worth trying out.

Student Identity: Do Not Fold, Spindle, or Mutilate

The Department of Education is studying the possibility of a federal database of college students to track graduation rates and other information. Among the items being considered for inclusion are:

Individual identifiers:
Name, Social Security number, date of birth, race, and gender

Enrollment data:
Number of courses and credits attempted, major field of study, start and end date, and attendance status

Completion information:
Degrees and date of completion

Financial aid:
Amount of aid from federal, state, and institutional sources, and the amount of tuition and fees, for each term

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education

“We are at a point where we have to try something different because the current approach is not getting us the numbers we need,” he said.

He said the database could help colleges allocate financial aid more efficiently, a particularly important goal at a time of soaring tuition rates.

The federal government is expected to disburse $80 million in financial aid to students this year under the Higher Education Act. Members of Congress, who are expected to work to reauthorize the HEA during this session, have expressed a need for better information to track students than is now available, in order to distribute the aid more efficiently.

Hans L’Orange, the director of data and information management for the State Higher Education Executive Officers, an association in Denver, said federal agencies such as the Internal Revenue Service already maintain mounds of confidential data on the public.

“We have a high comfort level with those databases,” he said.

Public universities in 39 states currently have such databases, which are referred to as unit record systems, Mr. L’Orange said. He said that those states have better data about student movement between institutions.

“States that have systems like these speak with much more authority about what’s happening with their student populations and can make better decisions on policy related to students,” Mr. L’Orange said.

‘A Huge Fear’

Private colleges, however, say they don’t see much of an advantage to the proposed database. “We haven’t heard specifically how this data system would lean toward better policies,” said Susan Hattan, a consultant with the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, in Washington.

She added that there already is a great deal of information collected on students without actually tracking each one individually. There are no “really powerful, good reasons to overcome the privacy concerns” around the database, she said.

Katherine Haley Will, the president of Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, said she was concerned about student privacy, and the high cost of the database, both to the college and taxpayers.

“The public deserves to know—as a parent I would like to know—what is the compelling reason to do this,” Ms. Will said.

Students have also expressed privacy concerns, and several college newspapers have written editorials against the database.

The report does not indicate how long the Education Department would keep the data. Jasmine L. Harris, the legislative director of the U.S. Student Association, a 1 million-member group based in Washington, said that was a major concern.

“There is no information on when it would be expunged,” Ms. Harris said.

The feasibility study says that “under the Patriot Act, the attorney general and the Department of Justice could conceivably obtain access to the … data in order to fight terrorism.”

“There is a huge fear of the misuse of information for various reasons, including the war on terror,” Ms. Harris said.

Mr. Whitehurst of the Education Department said concerns about privacy have led the Institute of Education Sciences to explore options such as using a student record number similar to a bar code instead of a student’s Social Security number.

“There are ways to reduce the concerns over privacy,” Mr. Whitehurst said.


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