U.S. wants to track students' every step
Does the federal government need to know whether you aced Aristotelian ethics
but had to repeat introductory biology? Does it need to know your family's financial
profile, how much aid you received and whether you took off a semester to help
out at home?
The Secretary of Education's Commission on the Future of Higher Education thinks
so. In its first draft report, released in late June, the commission called
for creation of a tracking system to collect sensitive information about our
nation's college students. Its second draft, made public last week, softens
the name of the plan, but the essence of the proposal remains unchanged.
Whether you call it a ''national unit records database'' (the first
name) or a ''consumer-friendly information database'' (the second), it is in
fact a mandatory federal registry of all American students throughout their
collegiate careers - every course, every step, every misstep. Once established,
it could easily be linked to existing K-12 and workforce databases to create
unprecedented cradle-to-grave tracking of American citizens. All under the watchful
eye of the federal government.
The commission calls our nation's colleges and universities unaccountable, inefficient
and inaccessible. In response it seeks to institute collection of personal information
designed to quantify our students' performance in college and in the workforce.
But many of us are concerned about invading our students' privacy by feeding
confidential educational and personal data, linked to Social Security numbers,
into a mandatory national database. Such a database would wrest control over
educational records from students and hand it to the government. I'd like the
commission to tell me how our students would benefit from our reporting confidential
family financial information.
Those of us in higher education aren't the only ones with concerns about this.
Earlier this month the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities
released results of a survey that showed the majority of Americans oppose creation
of a national system to track students' academic, enrollment and financial aid
information. More than 60 percent of those polled opposed the creation of such
a system, and 45 percent of those surveyed were ''strongly opposed'' to the
Privacy groups from both ends of the political spectrum - including the Eagle
Forum and the American Civil Liberties Union - criticized an early form of the
proposal that Education Department officials were exploring in 2004
We already have efficient systems in place to collect educational statistics.
I question why the commission, which shares our concerns about the increased
cost of education, would want to create a database that not only violates privacy
but also would be very expensive. Our existing systems meet the government's
need to inform public policy without intruding on student privacy because they
report the data in aggregate form. Colleges and universities report on virtually
every aspect of our students' experience - retention and graduation rates, financial
aid rates and degrees conferred by major institutions - to the federal and state
governments as well as to organizations such as the NCAA and to many publications,
including U.S. News & World Report and the Princeton Review.
The commission seems bent on its Orwellian scheme of collecting extensively
detailed, very personal student data. Supporters say it would make higher education
more accountable and more affordable for students. Admirable goals, but a strange
and forbidding solution.
This proposal is a violation of the right to privacy that Americans hold dear.
It is against the law. Moreover, there is a mountain of data already out there
that can help us understand higher education and its efficacy. And, finally,
implementation of such a database, which at its inception would hold ''unit''
record data on 17 million students, would be an unfunded mandate on institutions
and add greatly to the expense of education.
At a time when the world acknowledges the strength of the American system
of higher education - that it is decentralized, diverse, competitive and independent
- why would a commission on the future of higher education want to impose federal
regulations and federal bureaucratic monitoring of individual students in the
name of ''improving'' higher education?
The writer is president of Gettysburg College and chair-elect of the Annapolis
Group, an organization of leading independent liberal arts colleges.
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