The Education Department has released a plan that would create a national database of student records -- with students identified by Social Security numbers.
The proposed system would contain more information about students than anything currently available and could be used to track the progress of the increasing number of college students who receive their educations at multiple institutions. But education groups -- with varying degrees of intensity -- worry that the database would violate students' privacy.
It is unclear whether the plan will go anywhere. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings has said several times that the lack of a good database on students' progress hinders the development of sound education policy, and makes it more difficult to evaluate the effectiveness of various colleges and programs. But the plan released by the department would require Congressional approval, and many Republicans in Congress are dubious of plans that involve the creation of nationwide databases about individuals.
The plan -- released by the National Center for Education Statistics -- would create a "student unit record" system. The system would track all college students as they make progress at their first institution, move to another one, graduate or drop out, or move on to work on another degree. Students would be identified by their Social Security numbers.
This system would differ significantly from the main data system used by the department now: the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, known as IPEDS. That system looks at aggregate data from colleges. A criticism of that system is that it leaves so many questions unanswered. Is a college with a low graduation rate doing a poor job, or are many of its students getting the background to transfer to other institutions? IPEDS can't tell you, although a student unit record system could.
Many states have already created such systems, but not all of them include private colleges or provisions to share data across state lines.
Within higher education, the strongest opposition to the proposal for a national system based on student unit records is from private colleges. David L. Warren, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, said that "the idea that students would enter a federal registry by going to college, and could be tracked for the rest of their lives, is chilling. The proposal takes us down the slippery slope toward Big Brother oversight of college students, and of those same citizens beyond their college years."
Warren also alluded to a fear many have about the program: Once it is created, some member of Congress will try to link the student databases to other databases (draft registration, for example) to punish students for various infractions. "There is clear precedent for federal databases being used for purposes for which they were not originally designed," Warren said.
David Baime, vice president of government relations for the American Association of Community Colleges, said that many two-year institutions would benefit from a student unit records system because they would receive some credit for the many students who start at their institutions and end up getting a degree elsewhere.
Despite that, Baime said that his group does not support the plan, "primarily due to privacy concerns, expressed to us by our members."
He said that he doubted that Congress would approve the current plan, but that in the future, some version is likely to be enacted. "Greater pressure for accountability will demand it."