New federal data-tracking for college students
by Julie Quist

May 4, 2005


        The National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities strenuously objects to a proposal by a federal agency to begin a centralized, federal database tracking system for all college students. The National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) already tracks data on K-12 students around the country.

        Federal agencies currently pressure states to provide them with ever more personal data on American citizens of all ages. For example, proposals for assigning data tracking ID's to children as young as three are showing up in states such as Minnesota. State agencies say they need individual child IDs to provide federal agencies with more data on kids. The state serves as a data collection agency for federal data banks. Now, federal agencies also want colleges to be their data collectors.

        NCES hopes Congress will include authorization for a central college-student tracking system in the 2005 Higher Education Bill.
        
The plan faces strong opposition across the political spectrum from groups who consider government databases with detailed, personal information about American citizens to be a dangerous violation of personal privacy and a major threat to freedom. In a letter to members of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions and to the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, the NAICU expressed "serious concerns" about the proposal, calling it "a threat to student privacy".
        "Currently, IPEDS [data] information is submitted by institutions in the aggregate on data such as enrollments, completions, graduation rates, prices, and financial aid. Under a student unit record data system, institutions would submit data on a student-by-student basis. In addition, the use of that information would be expanded beyond research to include program administration support-further broadening the pool of individuals who would have access to the data. Student social security numbers would be used to match data files.
        "In short, this proposal envisions a central database containing massive amounts of data for each of the 16.5 million post-secondary students in the United States, including those who do not receive any federal financial aid. The idea that students would enter a federal registry by going to college, and could be tracked for the rest of their lives, is chilling. 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."
        Still, federal money has strings, and the "accountability" buzzword has forced 50 unwilling states down a destructive NCLB path in K-1. Elementary students are now assigned a permanent data file that will stay with them through their lives. Mr. Baime of the American Association of Community Colleges predicts, "Something like this is going to happen because of the accountability movement. There will be some mandatory system of tracking students." (Wall Street Journal, 4/27/05)

        The plan also changes the way personal data can be used. The NCES is currently restricted to using data for "research," a term many already consider to be excessively elastic. The new proposal expands data access to "program administration support." The NAICU points out that, "The existence of such a body of data will inevitably lead to pressures to share the information with other government agencies for any variety of other purposes. Those pressures may well prove to be more than an education statistics agency can withstand."

        Many Republican lawmakers are unenthusiastic about the proposal. Ohio's Rep. John A. Boehner, for example, who chairs the education committee in the House, opposes the idea. Also opposing it, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, are organizations such as Eagle Forum and the Free Congress Foundation, a think tank that is led by Paul M. Weyrich, the founding president of the Heritage Foundation and a leading fund raiser for conservative causes, that wield some influence. Liberal privacy rights groups are also weighing in against the proposal.

        The public is becoming increasingly wary of personal data-collecting by public and private agencies and groups in light of the explosion of invasive surveys and screenings students are subjected to. Permanent data files are created, and they follow individuals throughout their lives. Mental health screening by non-professionals in schools, home-visiting programs for infants and toddlers, and within various public agencies has raised the fear that vague and subjective categories label children and adults if they don't conform to an arbitrary, government-determined norm.

        Dr. Karen Effrem of EdWatch notes that, "Due to rapid developmental changes, it is very difficult to accurately diagnose young children. At times, children are labelled based on their political or religious beliefs." EdWatch opposes the new system.

        Michael Ostrolenk, lobbyist for EdWatch and national director of the Liberty Coalition, which is made up of privacy-rights organizations across the political spectrum, considers security a major concern. “The Liberty Coalition opposes any and all federal education databases”  he said.

        A recent news story out of Colorado demonstrates his concern. "Patients Not Notified That Their Health Records Were Stolen, Information Was Being Collected For National Autism Study"
Denver -- Detailed health records of more than 1,600 Colorado families -- containing their most personal information -- are missing, and most of the families don't even know it. The records are part of an anonymous autism study and were entered into a laptop computer -- a computer that was stolen from a state health department employee last October when she carelessly left it in her car. But it wasn't until January of this year that some parents -- who had no idea the data was being collected -- began to find out their family's most private information could be for sale on the open market. "They said they had information like Social Security numbers, address, all the intake information that was given about our son which involved complete family medical history and all his health records," Ritter said.
CURRENT SYSTEM
Information that colleges report to the Education Department in summary form: PROPOSED SYSTEM
Information that colleges would report to the Education Department about each student:
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