Numbers to Make Our Colleges Better

By Thomas J. Hochstettler
Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Gathering and analyzing information, advancing unfettered inquiry, expanding knowledge -- these are surely hallmarks of American higher education. So, when the academy itself is the subject of rigorous study, shouldn't we expect the leaders of our colleges and universities to support such inquiry on the same principles?

Unfortunately, that doesn't appear to be the case with a proposed federal database on college student performance. "Orwellian," some of my colleagues have called the proposed system. "Egregious," others have termed it, a violation of student privacy, a step toward government control of private education, a costly burden on our institutions. Objections have been particularly numerous and passionate from private institutions, which are typically subject to less government scrutiny than public universities.

At issue is a proposal by the Commission on the Future of Higher Education, labeled the Spellings Commission after Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, who established the body just one year ago. The commission recommends establishment of a database to track students as they pursue their varied paths through the higher education system and into the workforce. The stated purpose: to make higher education more transparent and accountable by requiring that it keep better track of student performance; and to expand the fund of data available for much-needed analysis of our college and university systems.

Much of my colleagues' criticism centers on the perception that we can't trust the federal government with such sensitive data. Do we want Uncle Sam knowing every class our students are taking, every grade they earn, every course they drop? Critics have also noted the apparent ease with which the federal government could link data to students' Social Security numbers and, presumably, to their complete life stories.

Privacy concerns are understandable, and we're wise to question how such data might be used. But it is important to note that the proposal, in its latest iteration this month, explicitly states that the system would not identify individual students. Moreover, those objecting to the database have not, to this point, explained how the Spellings Commission proposal represents a dramatic departure from federal data collection projects that have been underway for decades and are familiar to us all. Most notable among them is FAFSA -- the Free Application for Federal Student Aid -- which requires aid applicants to provide their Social Security and driver's license numbers as well as information on their families' income and assets. To cite another example, the Selective Service has for a quarter-century been requiring young men to register in the event a draft is reinstated.

I question the wisdom of rejecting wholesale the benefits to be derived from a national student database. Where some see the specter of Big Brother looking over colleges' and students' shoulders, I see a potential for a robust (and privacy-protected) set of metrics that would yield essential data with tremendous potential for advancing our individual institutions and for identifying with greater precision those areas where our national education policy needs to be strengthened. Where some see the specter of government intrusion, I see the possibility of transforming our current separate data-reporting schemes into a streamlined system that is beneficial to students and useful to faculty and administrators.

Contrary to what critics of the database plan might have the public believe, we in academia know remarkably little about what emerges from the vast and diverse system of higher education. Why do students drop out? Where do they go when they do? What factors in primary and secondary school, beyond grade-point averages, class rankings and standardized test scores, best predict their success or failure in college? What impact does their educational experience have on our students' success or failure after graduation?

We are ill-equipped to answer these questions. Without comprehensive information, both individual institutions and society lack the tools to assess how the system is working, how it is failing and how it might be improved.

Proponents of the database -- including, interestingly, many leaders of the nation's community colleges and public universities -- view it as a means for educators to achieve the accountability for which lawmakers and the public are clamoring.

At a time when hard experience has taught the public to question institutions that once enjoyed their implicit trust, a new ethos is beginning to take hold in higher education. "Openness" and "transparency" are the new buzzwords. From all quarters come the questions: Why do we cost so much; how do the admissions and financial processes work; and how do we manage the dollars entrusted us? Fair questions all. And we are beginning to answer, as we should. Those who fund higher education, be they parents, donors, the government or students themselves, have a right to know the payoff on their investment.

Will we open ourselves to scrutiny and assessment, or will we continue to keep the public at arm's length? Will openness, transparency and accountability be revealed as mere cliches, or can we embrace them as values that can influence for the better who we are and how we pursue our missions? Do we have it in us to live up to our historical commitment to open inquiry?

The collective stance of the entire sector of private higher education on the matter of student data collection will provide the answers to those challenging questions.

The writer is president of Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Ore.

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