Enrolling in college soon could place you on a federal registry. As first reported in the Nov. 26 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education and later by The New York Times, a recent Department of Education proposal would create a vast database of enrollment records on all college and university students. Though the proposal may be meant to serve laudable goals, it unnecessarily jeopardizes the privacy rights of students and should be rejected.
The proposal opens another front in the Bush administration’s ongoing campaign for accountability in public education, with its sights now set on institutions of higher education. The government claims the proposed database will provide more accurate information in evaluating colleges’ performances by better acquiring information about retention and graduation rates, while also tracking an institution’s tuition fees.
Colleges and universities currently are only compelled to provide information to the government concerning students who receive federally financed student aid; they also give the government information about overall enrollment, graduation, prices and financial information without identifying individual students. The new proposal demands colleges and universities give the government data on all students individually and identify every student by his Social Security number.
Proponents of the proposal argue the criteria for evaluating the performance of higher-learning institutions are skewed because current federal guidelines for calculating graduation rates do not track transfer students. Furthermore, proponents contend the new system would allow institutions to calculate net tuition prices because the government would have data on an individual’s tuition rates and financial-aid records. The University does not yet know enough about the database proposal to take a position on it, University spokeswoman Julie Peterson said.
In order to enact the proposal, Congress must grant the Department of Education the authority to build the new database. Congress would be required to amend the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which forbids colleges and universities that receive federal funds from releasing most student records without permission from parents or an adult student.
This requirement underscores the potentially devastating impact to students’ privacy the new database could bring. As the rising occurrence of identity theft cases shows, databases containing identifying information such as Social Security always poses a serious threat of misuse. Despite the Department of Education’s claim that it would forbid outside access to the database, the potential for invasions of students’ privacy is significant. In today’s world, there will likely be pressure on the government to use this information to check every conceivable record on individual students in the name of national security. Under the proposed initiative, privacy invasions will not be confined to just the time a student is enrolled — the Department of Education plans to keep student records indefinitely.
The creation of a government database that tracks an individual as a consequence of enrolling in an institution of higher education has the potential to bring great harm to individual privacy rights and personal freedom. The government can currently track enrollment, graduation rates and prices of colleges and universities, and if necessary, can devise a system that retains the anonymity of individual identities. The government does not need to, and should not, implement this dubious database.