Proposed Database Could Compromise Privacy
Student information in FAFSAs may be readily available
September 22, 2006 7:58 PM
The discovery of a collaboration between the FBI and the U.S. Department of Education has spawned renewed debate over a controversial proposal for a national student database.
Project Strikeback examined financial aid databases using names provided by the FBI. It was recently discovered by former Northwestern University graduate student Laura McGann, and has drawn attention to the DOE’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education’s unit record system, or national student database.
Originally proposed to Congress in 2004, the database was rejected because of concerns over student privacy.
It would require colleges and universities to report specific, individual student information instead of general, anonymous information about the student population as a whole.
While Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings said public colleges and universities are in favor of the database, some members of the higher education community view it as a threat to students’ privacy.
Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, said a national database with information for each student in the nation is too tempting for federal agencies not to use.
“Build it and they will come,” Nassirian said. “Make it in the name of policy today and don’t be surprised if Homeland Security and the Department of Defense come looking for terrorism and immigrants tomorrow.”
“No question,” he said. “More databases are an open invitation for the invasion of an individual’s privacy.”
One of the basic principles of good information practices, Nassirian said, is limiting the use of information that is gathered to what you tell people it will be used for.
The commission suggests, among other things, that the database be created to “make it easy to obtain comparative information including cost, price, admissions data, college completion rates and, eventually, learning outcomes,” all in a “consumer friendly form” for the general public.
The DOE argues that it would also mean more accountability and a clearer picture of the education system as a whole for legislators to make laws to accurately serve people’s needs.
Secretary of Education Spellings held a speech Tuesday at the National Press Club in Washington to present an “action plan” to implement the committee’s recommendations, just a week after the release of the commission’s final report.
In an interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education before the speech, Spellings said, “Except for the private colleges, the higher-education community is for this.”
However, Jo Volkert, SF State associate vice president of Enrollment Planning and Management, said she is ambivalent about the plan.
“It’s important to realize why it’s useful, but maybe there’s room for abuse,” Volkert said. “There is no easy answer.”
Beyond directory information such as a student’s name, e-mail address and enrollment status, the more intimate details of a student’s education record are confidential under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. Any school nationwide that receives federal funding must comply with FERPA.
In the 1950s and ‘60s government agencies misused information against anti-war protesters, people involved in the civil rights movement, and targets of investigations during the McCarthy era.
It was these abuses and others nationwide, Nassirian said, that led to the passing of FERPA laws in 1974.
Rebecca Thompson, legislative director for the United States Student Association, a national student organization, called it a great idea in theory, but said she is afraid there will be no checks and balances over the database.
“We don’t disagree that information should be accessed but they need to notify students,” Thompson said. “Most students would probably agree (to allow the proper authorities to view the information) but they aren’t given the opportunity to make those decisions. They have to see it in the Wall Street Journal.”
It’s this lack of accountability and extent to which government officials can obtain information that Thompson calls “essentially scary.”
Clara Potes-Fellow, spokesperson for the CSU Chancellor’s office, said in reference to the database, “That’s beyond our concern. We assume the federal government is a responsible entity that will safeguard the information it receives.”
The commission’s proposals are now in the negotiated rule making process, a meeting of committees nationwide to hear the concerns of interested parties. Thompson will be on one of these committees and represent the voice of American students.
The next meeting will be at Loyola University in Chicago on Oct. 5.
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