College Student Tracking Assailed

By Lois Romano
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 7, 2006

Private colleges yesterday fired a rather noisy shot across the bow of an education proposal aimed at keeping closer tabs on institutions of higher learning through a new national database of student records.

"Is there some reason to reverse three decades of [privacy] policy and go down this Orwellian road?" asked Christopher B. Nelson, the president of St. John's College, during a conference call with reporters to call attention to a new survey on the subject.

The controversial concept of a national student "unit" tracking system has been floating around for about two years. It was given a boost last month when Education Secretary Margaret Spellings's Commission on the Future of Higher Education released a draft report endorsing such a plan.

The idea, proponents say, is not to invade the privacy of students, but to force colleges to be more accountable to the public by revealing such information as accurate enrollment figures and financial aid percentages, as well as graduation, transfer and dropout rates. The data would come from individual students, but their identities would be protected, supporters say.

Right now, the plan has no legs. The House included in its higher education bill a prohibition on such a plan; the Senate bill ignored it; and some powerful legislators oppose it. Nonetheless, private institutions are fretting that the Department of Education will find a way around Congress to implement it.

The National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities yesterday released a survey reporting that 62 percent of the respondents oppose a federal data-collection effort, with 45 percent strongly against it.

Critics of the survey said that the questions were worded to elicit a negative response, and that the association did not tell participants that records would be confidential and would likely be encrypted, so that it would be virtually impossible to identify a student.

"They're scare-mongering," said Kati Haycock, director of the Education Trust, an independent advocacy group. Haycock is also a member of the higher education commission.

"I can't think of single con," she said. "The bottom line is that they are trying make this about student privacy, and it's about their own institutions' privacy."

Proponents, including the Education Department and some public higher education institutions, believe such a plan would provide a picture of how the nation's young people are being educated. They note that most states already keep such data, although there is no national archive. A spokesman said the Education Department will wait until the commission's final report is issued to comment.

Travis Reindl, director of policy analysis for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, said that a tracking system would "offer the opportunity to answer questions that we can't answer right now about the types of students we have and how they are learning."

"Right now, when a student leaves school, we have no way of knowing whether they went to another institution or several institutions," he said. "We lose them along the way and lose the ability to know whether they graduated. This not just about accountability. This about helping institutions help students."

Still, private school administrators and others do not see it that way. They charge that far too much information about individuals could be collected and would follow them through their careers.

The United States Student Association views the proposal "as a massive invasion of student privacy," according to the group's legislative director, Rebecca Thompson.

"It's cradle-to-grave tracking," said Rolf Wegenke, president of the Wisconsin Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. "It can easily be connected to other databases and be connected to basic freedoms."

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