Colleges Balk at Government's Student Data Request

The U.S. Department of Education (search) wants universities to provide personal information about every student in the country in order, they say, to produce more accurate and useful information about the school system. But critics are already lining up to prevent any proposal from going forward.

"While we recognize there are valid considerations, we are not interested in sacrificing student privacy rights for them," said Jasmine Harris, legislative director for the U.S. Student Association (search), which represents student governments at colleges and universities across the country.

"This would take away the little protection students have," she added.

Katherine Haley Will, president of Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, penned a newspaper editorial last month questioning the plan.

"Why do we have to assemble such a massive database?" she asked in an interview with "It’s individual students linked to their Social Security numbers, their race, their gender, every single class they’ve ever taken in their lives, whether they keep it or drop it, their student loans — everything."

But Education Department officials say they want a better system to track the state of higher education today. Right now, no integrated system is available to assess accurately graduation rates, degree paths, enrollment figures, tuition costs and other trends across state lines.

"Our existing system of reporting data on degree attainment and financial aid at postsecondary institutions relies on snapshots of student characteristics at particular points in time," said Grover Whitehurst, director of the National Center for Education Statistics (search), which is part of the Department of Education. The center released a feasibility report on a national Student Record Data System (search) on March 29.

The report says that the current Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (search), which collects standard information from all schools but does not track individual students, cannot monitor students who move to other institutions before graduating. The omission, therefore, presents some school’s graduation rates as artificially low.

"The current IPEDS framework cannot accurately capture changing enrollment and completion patterns in the postsecondary education sector, especially given increasing numbers of non-traditional students," reads the report, "and cannot describe the prices various students face after financial aid is taken into account."

To create a more comprehensive system, the report concluded, "would, for the first time, give policymakers and consumers much more accurate and comprehensive information about postsecondary education in this country."

Paul Lingenfelter, executive director of the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association (search), which represents policy officials across the country, agrees. "I think the logic is straightforward and compelling" in favor of the project, he said.

"There’s nothing more fundamentally important to our future successes as a nation than assessing our current education system," he said, pointing out that the federal government spends about $70 billion a year on higher education for about 17 million students in postsecondary programs.

"We have no way of knowing if these dollars are being placed for the best benefit," he added.

Terry Hartle, senior vice president at the American Council for Education (search), said some institutions would have a 10 percent to 30 percent higher graduation rate if the current system did not register students as dropouts when in fact they have completed their education elsewhere.

"The current calculations are very limited and badly state the postsecondary achievements of students," Hartle said, noting that parents and teachers would benefit from more accurate graduation data since those statistics are used often to rank schools for consumers.

"Unfortunately, the only way of getting a better system is putting in place a policy that violates student privacy," he added.

Lingenfelter said he believes that the privacy question can be overcome, and the technology and the will are there to provide the necessary data security.

But critics don’t buy it. Even the feasibility study noted that while protections are in place to prevent wrongful disclosure of student information, the use of student Social Security numbers, which the report says is essential to making the new program work, and the wealth of amassed personal information would make such a databank very attractive to hackers.

"What public policy decision is important enough to justify this? I don’t think I’ve ever heard an answer to that," said Susan Hatten of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (search).

"It’s so important to understand how higher education works and I understand the desire to have more information," said Will, "but I question if there is a better way to get at it."

Furthermore, critics worry that in the future, additional federal uses will be carved out for the information, making it available to other agencies like the Department of Homeland Security (search) or the Internal Revenue Service (search).

"One of our big concerns is the future potential use of the data. It would be valuable information that various stakeholders could use for their own purposes, for purposes other than what was intended," Harris said.

Officials at the Department of Education said earlier this month that they are digesting the feasibility study, which provided a good perspective on what could be done and where the trouble spots are. They would not comment further on whether the proposal, which would have to be passed by Congress, would go forward.

Hartle predicted that the department would have a tough time reconciling the need for the system and the privacy concerns it poses.

"To me," he said, "this is really two good, worthwhile ideas in competition and there is no easy answer."