Students concerned about infringement of privacy rights

(U-WIRE) WASHINGTON – A federal government proposal to create a new comprehensive database of college and university student enrollment records has some students concerned that it may infringe upon their privacy rights.

The Department of Education’s proposal seeks to improve government oversight of students’ enrollment rates, graduation rates and tuition. This is an effort to raise schools’ accountability of federal funds. If approved, the new program, proposed by the National Center for Education Statistics at the Department of Education, would track every movement of individual college and university students from matriculation to graduation.

Each student would have a computer file containing their name, address, birth date, gender, race and Social Security number. The record would also house information about field of study, credits, tuition paid, financial aid received and would follow the student if he or she transferred schools, or dropped out and later enrolled.

“I don’t like the idea of having a file out there with all of my very personal information in it,” said freshman Toby Clarke, 18, of Las Vegas, “You never know in an age like today with identity theft and terrorism where your information may wind up. The government should find another way to hold schools accountable for using their funds and not punish our rights to privacy.”

Currently, there are gaps in the national statistics because universities provide information on students’ graduation rates, enrollment rates and tuition in summary form. According to the American Council on Education, over one third of students transfer colleges at least once, and one in five students, transfers twice or more. With the current data system, students who transfer are marked as dropouts and are not a counted as a graduate of any school. Graduate rates, thus appear to be low at institutions with high numbers of “nontraditional” students who may older or are working full time and going to school only part time.

Officials expect Congress to consider the proposal early next year as part of its periodic reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. If approved, the government would have to amend federal privacy laws which require a student’s or parent’s permission in releasing school records.

“The idea that students would enter a federal registry by enrolling in college, and could be tracked for the rest of their lives, is frightening,” Tony Pals, the public director of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities said in an email. “The existence of a central database containing massive amounts of data for each of the 16.5 million college students in the United States, including those who do not receive any federal financial aid, is chilling. The proposal begins to take us down the slippery slope toward Big Brother oversight of college students, and of those same citizens beyond their college years.”

The Department of Education says that its National Center for Education Statistics would receive, analyze and guard the data. The NCES insists in a department overview of the proposal that they would not share the information with other agencies or outsiders.

Program opponents fear that the data may be used inappropriately, like the National Directory of New Hires, a database of people re-entering the workforce. The government used the catalog intended to track job trends, to track down people who owe them money or need to pay child support, Pals said.

Crystal Zahedi, a senior at Northeastern University who transferred from Syracuse University, says while she would not want her personal information out there, it is not an “option” in today’s post September 11th society.

“I think it’s really invasive but it’s nothing new, there are so many people out there tracking people’s personal information,” Zahedi says. “Privacy is no longer an option in today’s age so if it would benefit to have government files, they might as well do it.”

Some students say that this rule should not apply to private institutions, which do not receive as much federal funding as public universities. “I feel that since I pay a lot of money to go to a private school, it should be my choice to decide whether or not I want the government to have a file on me,” said Carlo Fassinotti, a junior at the George Washington University. “If they could guarantee me the information would stay private, I wouldn’t mind but that is nearly impossible today. The government has the power to find out anything.” Fassinotti, however said that there is a benefit for the government having these records. “It holds the University more accountable for where their money goes,” he said. “It might force universities to rethink where tuition is being spent.”

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