Archive for Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Government may track students’ college years

U.S. Department of Education proposal would require dossiers to help monitor federal financial aid

March 30, 2005


In the near future, the act of attending college could be reason enough for Uncle Sam to open a file on you.

The U.S. Department of Education is considering a proposal to create a national database that would contain a range of details -- Social Security numbers, ethnicity and more -- on every college student in the country.

It's a prospect that has drawn the ire of privacy advocates. Kansas University officials are watching warily.

Lynn Bretz, a KU spokeswoman, said the university is "open" to the proposal. But she added: "We certainly would not want a situation where somebody could access a student's grade or record for political or illicit purposes."

Federal officials say they're not trying to invade anybody's privacy. Instead, they say the information would be used to more accurately track graduation rates during an era in which students often attend more than one college on their way to a degree.

That, in turn, will help ensure that colleges are putting federal financial aid to good use, officials said.

"The only way to accurately account for students who stop out, drop out, graduate at a later date, or transfer out is with a system that tracks individual students across and within postsecondary institutions," Grover Whitehurst, acting commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, said in a statement issued Tuesday by the Department of Education.

Clearer picture

The federal government already tracks graduation rates at colleges and universities by comparing the number of degrees awarded in one year with the number of students enrolled four or more years earlier.

Whitehurst, however, said that today's students often hop from college to college, making that method less accurate. Tracking each student individually, he said, would provide a clearer picture of each college's successes and failures.

"Forty percent of students now enroll in more than one institution at some point during their progress to a degree," he said.

But no college student would be exempt from tracking -- not even those who receive no federal aid to attend college.

According to a 168-page Education Department report examining the feasibility of the database, even students who receive no aid "benefit indirectly from federal student aid funds, which support all programs, and (they) benefit directly from state appropriations at public institutions and the tax--exempt status of private, not--for--profit institutions."

The report said 39 states -- not including Kansas -- already have a student-tracking system in place. A nationwide database would cover more than 10,000 colleges and universities.

Potential problems

In an opinion piece in Tuesday's Washington Post, Gettysburg College president Katherine Haley Will said potential problems with the system outweighed the merits.

"The potential for abuse of power and violation of civil liberties is immense," she wrote. "The database would begin with 15 million-plus records of students in the first year and grow. These student records would be held by the federal government for at least the life of the student."

In its feasibility report, the Education Department acknowledged privacy fears but noted that federal law makes disclosure of student information a felony crime.

A spokesman for the Kansas Board of Regents said Tuesday that officials there knew little about the proposal.

Back at KU, student body vice president Jeff Dunlap said he shared the privacy fears.

"You know, my concern is that as we get more and more integrated and things become more centralized -- and information more accessible -- there could be concerns about identity theft, discrimination in employment or insurance coverage," he said, and added: "It seems like one more step to a loss of privacy."

In 2003, hackers gained access to KU files on more than 1,450 foreign students who were being tracked under the federal Student and Exchange Visitor Information System. Personal information on thousands more students, faculty and staff was hacked in 2004 from the server at KU's Watkins Memorial Health Center pharmacy.

Congress would consider the proposal as part of a reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. If approved this year, the system would go online in 2007.

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