WASHINGTON — Say you’ve just enrolled in college. Would you want your
name and Social Security number put into a national student database in Washington?
That’s what might happen in a scenario envisioned by the Department of
Education, which is considering a plan to maintain files on virtually every
college and university student in the country: 15 million students from 6,000
Federal education officials and supporters in the higher education community
contend the process could better track graduation rates and develop better policies.
But other college and university leaders have warned that it would further
raise the shadow of Big Brother at a time when laws such as the Patriot Act
have made many Americans nervous about their privacy. There’s also growing
concern about identity theft.
“We’ve all got horrors that we can imagine if that database were
put together,” said David Shulenburger, provost at the University of Kansas.
“The general rule is: If you’ve got a very large downside and not
a very large upside, you avoid it. I see a very large downside.”
Supporters say the idea is neither new nor innovative: 39 states have similar
databases, because they require public colleges and universities to supply personal
In an interview Friday, a top federal education official said that in response
to worries over privacy, the department is exploring alternatives to using Social
Grover Whitehurst, director of the Department of Education’s Institute
of Education Sciences, said officials have been discussing the idea of giving
students individual bar codes instead.
“That would be a record that cannot be easily attached to other personally
identifiable information,” he said. “We’ve just thrown it
out in the last week, so this is just kind of a toe in the water to see if it
would satisfy some of the concerns, which are legitimate.”
The idea for a national student database, which became public last fall, grew
out of a push for more accountability in education that also spawned the No
Child Left Behind Act. That law has altered priorities and goals at the secondary
Database backers in government and in higher education circles say their ability
to track students throughout their education careers has been hamstrung by cultural
and societal changes.
Students are more mobile now. They transfer from school to school more often
and drop out more frequently, sometimes returning years later to resume their
studies. But each time they do, they’re listed as new students, making
graduation rates less reliable.
“It could probably be helpful, because it would track students and help
ensure that the policies and student aid are accomplishing what they’re
set out to do,” said Kerry Bolognese, director of federal relations and
higher education for the National Association of State and Land Grant Colleges.
A national database would change how colleges and universities submit information
to the federal government about enrollment, graduation rates and financial aid.
Except for students who receive federal financial aid, the information is currently
supplied in aggregate form without identifying students by name or Social Security
As outlined in an Education Department feasibility study, a database using
names and Social Security numbers would cover everyone, federal aid recipients
or not. Neither students nor schools would have the option to say no.
The study said that security safeguards would prevent improper access to the
database, noting that information compiled at the department’s National
Center for Education Statistics has never been “wrongfully disclosed,”
nor has its firewalls been breached.
“If collected, the data would be technologically protected and secure,”
the study said.
Still, there might be loopholes.
“Under the Patriot Act, the attorney general and the Department of Justice
could conceivably obtain access … to fight terrorism,” the study
The idea has divided the higher education community largely along public and
private school lines. Travis Reindl of the American Association of State Colleges
and Universities, a national organization of public four-year schools, said
opponents are “tapping into a rich political vein about worries about
Big Brother, particularly in a post-Sept. 11 world.”
Reindl calls the issue a smokescreen for opponents from private institutions
who don’t want the government interfering in their schools, even though
many of their students benefit from federal aid.
David Sallee, president of William Jewell College, a private four-year liberal
arts school in Liberty, said privacy concerns are paramount.
“Anytime we start tracking individuals worries me,” Sallee said.
Students appear equally nervous. From New England to the West Coast, college
newspapers have editorialized against the plan.
“Students are definitely aware of the government’s involvement
in personal lives that has become more and more apparent since 9/11,”
said Jasmine Harris, legislative director of the United States Student Association,
which represents more than 1 million college students.
Whitehurst said building the database would cost the federal government $10
million to $12 million. Costs to schools would vary.
If the idea is developed, he said, the department hopes that Congress would
include it in the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, which expires
this year. A pilot program involving 1,500 schools could begin next year.
“Higher education has transformed,” Whitehurst said. “Now
a student who starts at one school and finishes there is in the minority. Our
statistics are getting really to a point where they poorly represent what’s