Student data collection an Orwellian plan
By Katherine Haley Will
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 proposal.
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?
Katherine Haley Will is president of Gettysburg College and chair-elect of the Annapolis Group, an organization of leading independent liberal arts colleges. She wrote this commentary for The Washington Post.