This Just Bakes My Biscuits!!!

John Quayle blueoval57 at VERIZON.NET
Mon Jul 17 19:36:12 MDT 2006

The Free Congress Commentary
A Dangerous Precedent – Student Data Collection
By Stephen M. Lilienthal

July 13, 2006

Bad ideas born in Federal office buildings 
resemble cats; both can have nine lives. Consider 
the desire by officials at the Department of 
Education (DOE) to collect individualized student 
“unit” data on every college student in the 
United States who studies at an institution of 
higher learning which receives Federal funds. 
Despite having had a stake driven through its 
heart by the House of Representatives, this idea has remerged.

When DOE – specifically, the National Center for 
Education Statistics - expressed interest in 
collecting data on every such college student an 
unusual coalition comprised of independent 
colleges and universities, privacy advocates, 
student groups, consumer groups, even 
conservative and libertarian organizations, 
challenged the proposal. The advocates discovered 
an ally in Representative John A. Boehner (R-OH), 
the current Majority Leader in the House of 
Representatives who, at the time, was Chairman of 
the Education and Workforce Committee, and in 
Ranking Minority Member George Miller 
(D-CA).  Thanks to help from Boehner, his 
successor on the Education Committee, Howard P. 
“Buck” McKeon (R-CA), and Miller, the House in 
late March passed H.R. 609, the College Access 
and Opportunity Act. Section 132 – “Databases Of 
Student Information Prohibited” – states 
opposition to “the design, development, creation, 
implementation, or maintenance of a nationwide 
database of personally identifiable information” 
aimed at tracking students in higher education. 
This compelling statement by the House has not 
prevented continued interest in forming such a database.

The Secretary of Education's Commission on the 
Future of Higher Education, charged with 
developing “a comprehensive national strategy for 
postsecondary education,” issued its draft report 
on June 22, 2006, which contains a number of 
proposals. Some recommendations are to be 
welcomed, such as improving learning in 
mathematics and the sciences. On the issue of “a 
national student unit record tracking system,” 
the Commission chose to ignore the House of 
Representatives position. The draft of the Commission report calls for:

[the development of] a national student unit 
record tracking system, with appropriate privacy 
safeguards, which collects, analyzes and uses 
longitudinal data as a vital tool for 
accountability and policy-making. Such a system 
would provide an accurate measure of colleges’ 
retention and graduation rates, and their net 
tuition price. Collecting individual student 
records would give policymakers and institutions 
accurate information on all students, including 
the growing proportion of transfer students, and 
a better means to assess colleges’ performance.”

The statement may rely on reassuring phrases, 
such as “privacy safeguards,” but there are 
several reasons to challenge the need and practicality of such a system.

If the information is truly necessary, why is the 
data not anonymized to protect the identity of 
individuals? Why should the Federal Government 
want to track all individuals enrolled in a 
college or university, including those who are 
not collecting Federal financial aid. Earlier, 
DOE had thought it necessary to obtain Social 
Security numbers of students. It’s unclear 
whether SSNs are to be collected or some other 
form of identifier, perhaps a bar code, which 
also could be copied by identity thieves to 
obtain personal information. (H.R. 609 expressly 
prohibits the bar-code system.)

Boehner criticized the project in a June 1, 2005 
commentary, “A Monster Database Is Not the 
Answer,” published in THE CHRONICLE OF HIGHER 
EDUCATION: “If Big Brother has a dream, this [database] is it.” Boehner warned:

“A database containing students’ names and Social 
Security numbers and other information would, 
after all, be a marketer’s bonanza. While 
supporters of the proposed database insist the 
information collected would be permanently 
off-limits for anything other than strict 
academic tracking, it’s impossible to believe 
some organizations or agencies wouldn’t 
eventually seek the authority to plunder the system for other purposes.”

Claims that the data are needed to ensure more 
accountability over higher education defy 
credibility. More information about individual 
students would not improve higher education 
despite claims by officials, such as Charles 
Miller, Chairman of the Commission on the Future 
of Higher Education, that there is a “serious 
records gap” because “untraditional” students, 
such as those taking part-time courses, are off 
the radar. “We lose out on a great part of data 
that’s pertinent,” Miller told INSIDE HIGHER ED. 
“If we don’t have information on when students 
enter and when they leave, our findings are 
incomplete.” Not surprisingly, Miller contends 
the tracking system should not only extend 
through a student’s higher education but also 
into one’s professional career. Nor should it be 
surprising that David Baime, Vice President for 
Government Relations of the American Association 
of Community Colleges, has proclaimed it 
“inevitable” that a centralized database be developed.

Senator James Buckley (R-NY) sponsored the Family 
Educational Rights and Privacy Act in the early 
1970s to limit access of educational records to 
students, their parents (if the student were a 
minor) and officials of the educational 
institutions they attended. If the Commission 
prevails, colleges and universities would be 
required to transmit data on individual students 
to researchers affiliated with DOE. David E. Shi, 
President of Furman University, has remarked on 
how “ironic” it is that a conservative 
Presidential administration would require the 
collection of such data, imposing “an onerous 
burden on higher education.” The Commission 
already is concerned that institutions of higher 
education are saddled by too many laws and 
regulations. Resources could be better used 
directly by the colleges and universities to improve themselves.

A strength – often unappreciated – of the 
American system of higher education is the 
ability of institutions to innovate.  Is it 
surprising that European countries are trying to 
emulate the innovativeness and responsiveness to 
needs of students and employers that represents 
American higher education at its best and which 
is often exemplified by our country’s independent colleges and universities?

There is a rightful concern that the increasing 
reliance on data by education officials in 
Washington will provide the beachhead for 
developing a “federalized” approach to higher 
education. This concern was expressed by 
Christopher Nelson, President of St. John’s 
College, the respected liberal arts institution 
in Annapolis, Maryland. “The beauty of higher 
education is we believe that nobody has all of 
the answers,” he commented during a news 
conference arranged by the National Association 
of Independent Colleges and Universities, which 
opposes the individualized tracking system. “The 
more we try to bring about a single federalized 
way of looking at each unit, each piece of the 
labor force, the more we are headed toward a 
system that stifles innovation and competition,” 
Nelson was quoted in INSIDE HIGHER ED.

Collecting data and sending it to Washington is 
expensive. If the Commission really wants to 
promote improvement in higher education, 
including affordability, the requirement to have 
every college and university submit data on every 
student is unlikely to help much. Collecting, 
collating, transmitting and securing the data all 
costs money; more than likely colleges and 
universities would need to purchase special software to participate.

Major institutions have suffered data breaches in 
recent years, raising another significant 
concern. A letter to the Commission from Catholic 
University of America General Counsel Craig W. 
Parker and Margaret L. O’Donnell, Associate 
General Counsel for Policy and Compliance, raises 
the issue of protecting privacy, suggesting that 
“a serious cost-benefit analysis” is needed 
on  the value of collecting student data versus 
the damage resulting from its being lost or 
misused. Parker and O’Donnell warn: “[DOE] may be 
able to provide a high level of security to 
attempt to prevent unauthorized access to the 
data, but they cannot guarantee that there will 
not be added mandates for expanded data 
collection and for additional uses of the data 
that will threaten student privacy rights.”

The late Senator Barry M. Goldwater (R-AZ), whose 
1964 Presidential campaign galvanized a 
rethinking by many Americans about centralized 
government, insisted, “A government that is big 
enough to give you all you want is big enough to 
take it all away.” In today’s data-driven age, a 
recasting of Goldwater’s thinking is in order. “A 
government that is big enough to collect 
information about you is big enough to lose or 
misuse that information or demand more and more.” 
Compiling government dossiers on all students 
represents exactly the Federal overreach that 
fueled conservative opposition to Big Government 
in the past. No matter how appealing the 
individual program or law, conservatives 
understood centralized government would more than 
likely continue to expand its hold over people’s 
lives in ways not anticipated.

The best way to prevent abuse of collected 
information is not to collect it in the first 
place. Once more the stake needs to be driven 
through the heart of the proposed Higher Ed Database.

Stephen M. Lilienthal is Director of the Center 
for Privacy and Technology Policy at the Free Congress Foundation.  
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