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Dude! Wanna Be In The National Student Database?

It's been a while since I've been in college or hung around with anyone who is, but I distinctly recall that no matter who was paying the freight, a student's grades were delivered only to the student. Even paying parents had no right to see the results. In the weird halfway house of adulthood that makes up the college experience, students are considered adults in some areas, children in others. Grades fell into the adult side of the class. And my guess is this goes for student health and other
It's been a while since I've been in college or hung around with anyone who is, but I distinctly recall that no matter who was paying the freight, a student's grades were delivered only to the student. Even paying parents had no right to see the results. In the weird halfway house of adulthood that makes up the college experience, students are considered adults in some areas, children in others. Grades fell into the adult side of the class. And my guess is this goes for student health and other records as well.For example, there was a case a few years ago involving one storied Cambridge institution of higher learning where a young woman killed herself. She apparently had been having problems and was receiving medical care from the school at the time of her death. Her parents were outraged that the school had never alerted them to their daughter's mental state. The school cited privacy issues, naturally.

That's because in answer to the question of whether students are adults or teenagers, from the standpoint of most colleges they're adults. This means that when universities aren't shrugging off responsibility for obnoxious, and sometimes illegal, student behavior, they're fiercely protecting their privacy.

This is why a draft proposal from the Bush administration's Commission of the Future of Higher Education to essentially create a national database of secondary-level student records caught my eye. The commission wants to compel colleges and universities to provide each student's academic, financial aid, and enrollment data--right down to attendance records--to an organization that would allegedly use the data to build a huge database capable of tracking, at least initially, about 17 million university students. Add into this soup a student's K-12 data and even their career path, and we'll be able to track students all right. Practically from cradle to retirement.

The Education Department claims the data can be used to better test educational theories and set spending priorities. Some proponents claim the data can be used to grade an individual college's performance, as well as track college transfer students and drop-out rates at specific schools. Or the data collected could be used to determine whether financial aid pays off.

It could also be used to violate student privacy. This year has produced one massive database breach or endangerment right after the other. If the government can't protect the data of veterans and active-duty soldiers, if stores can't protect customer data, and if health care organizations can't protect patient data, why should anyone think we can protect student data?

In essence, if this database comes to pass, each student would be assuming a very real risk that carries little to no benefit to them personally, as far as I can see.

And yet no one seems to be asking the students themselves whether they want to be tracked in this manner, whether they care about a particular school's drop-out rate, or whether they want follow-up contact or even for their data to be part of this project!

And it's not exactly a slam dunk amongst the higher education powers that be. There seems to be a split between public and private schools, with the private institutions mostly opposing the database. They even went so far as to commission a survey of 1,000 Americans, 62% of which (wait for it...) are opposed to the government's collecting of this data, citing privacy and cost issues. And yet those are very real issues. In fact, according to The Herald-Sun of Durham, N.C., the proposal has some wondering if it would violate the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1972, which requires schools to get written permission before releasing student records, except in a few specific instances. And the House voted earlier this year to prohibit the creation of a database that would track individual students over time. No word yet from the Senate.

Sure, sure, the data collected will be used in aggregate--students names etc. will be kept confidential. But their specific personal data will likely still be in this big tempting database. And eventually other well-meaning and maybe not so well-meaning programs will want to access it, for which they'd maybe have to pay a fee to the agency holding the database, but not necessarily adhere to the same security controls. (You know the data is going to get spread around. This is a prime demographic--it's just too tempting.) The bottom line here is that as we all know, no data is safe today--anywhere. Not from hackers, not from ordinary street crime, and least of all not from the stupidity of well-meaning people.

If students are adults, then shouldn't they have the right to opt in or out of this project? I'm thinking free books, lab fees, or, heck, an entire semester would be an attractive inducement to get that "God yes, have your way with my data" box checked off, but even so many might choose to pass. Whichever, it should be their choice. It's their data!

Do we need a national student tracking system? If parents can't breach the wall of student privacy without their offspring's permission, why the heck should some educational researcher or marketer be able to? Or should the need for better tracking of government funds and better accountability for universities take priority in this debate? Tell us what you think!

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