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Alma Mater As Big Brother

By Katherine Haley Will
Tuesday, March 29, 2005; Page A15

A proposal by the Education Department would force every college and university in America to report all their students' Social Security numbers and other information about each individual -- including credits earned, degree plan, race and ethnicity, and grants and loans received -- to a national databank. The government will record every student, regardless of whether he or she receives federal aid, in the databank.

The government's plan is to track students individually and in full detail as they complete their post-secondary education. The threat to our students' privacy is of grave concern, and the government has not satisfactorily explained why it wants to collect individual information.

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Researchers at the Education Department say this mammoth project would give them better information on graduation rates and what students pay for college. Perhaps this would be interesting information to collect, but at what cost to individual privacy? At what cost in time and effort to the government and the educational institutions? As a college president who has spent her career in higher education, I know that a system is already in place to collect statistics. This system meets the government's need to inform public policy without intruding on students' privacy. Since 1992 every college or university whose students receive federal financial aid has been required to submit summary data on enrollment, student aid, graduation rates and other matters via the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System.

Under the proposal that will soon be submitted to Congress, instead of aggregate statistics, colleges and universities would be required to feed data on each student to the Education Department's National Center for Education Statistics. Should an institution refuse, the government could take away federal grants, loans and work-study funds from every student at the college, a penalty that would fall on students in need while leaving more affluent students unaffected.

Such a proposal is unacceptable, and we should work hard to defeat it. The creation of a gigantic database containing educational records and other personal data on millions would be a costly and troubling assault on privacy. This information could all too easily be shared with other government agencies or even with the private sector.

The potential for abuse of power and violation of civil liberties is immense. The database would begin with 15 million-plus records of students in the first year and grow. These student records would be held by the federal government for at least the life of the student.

Collecting and compiling data for such a system would increase college and university costs for hardware, staffing and training. Such costs would join surging health care and energy expenses in pushing tuitions up. Federal officials have shown no compelling public policy need that outweighs Americans' basic expectations of privacy. The Education Department's proposal to gather unprecedented amounts of personal data on individual students is dangerous and poorly conceived. Congress must reject this measure.

The writer is president of Gettysburg College.

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