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Federal student database is a risky, flawed idea (essay)

Unit Records, Risky and Wrong

June 5, 2014

We have a propensity to draw conclusions from patterns, even when there is a lack of hard data. Thus, British soccer fans are rarely invited to join quiet lawn parties in retirement villages, and NFL football scouts have not added Rabbinical schools to their talent-search itineraries. 

Epidemiologists have taken us a step further. Drawing from behavior and outcomes of large populations, they have been able to make recommendations in the fields of nutrition and health, long before the relevant science has been worked out.

None of this has proven to be particularly troublesome. We are all part of a public and we expect that our behavior and actions will be observed and sometimes recorded by others.

Sometimes records are kept of relatively private actions under tacit assumptions which have not withstood the impact of modern technology. Particulars regarding our homes, once maintained on cumbersome files located in sleepy municipal offices, are now accessible, instantly, anywhere in the world. 

Health records, too, once safely housed in thick files in a physician’s office, will soon be electronically stored, one renegade’s finger push away from worldwide exposure. 

All of the above record keeping is associated with voluntary actions on our part, and intended for our benefit. We want to buy homes, and want careful records maintained of our title. Similarly, physicians need details of our health history to treat us properly.

An even stronger element of cooperation enters when purchases are made by customers who willingly show their names and other personal information in exchange for discounts, diaper coupons and the like.

Duress enters with the record-keeping and dissemination associated with the criminal justice system. This has consequences. A 2011 article in The New York Times described the difficulty that people with any record of conviction – over 65,000,000 was the number mentioned – have getting an interview, let alone a job.

There are laws which require employers to take into account the “severity of an offense, the length of time that has passed, and the relevance to the job in question,” according to the article.  In other words, a person with a speeding arrest should be considered differently from a violent felon.

But Internet-based search capabilities make it trivially easy to select from a large pool of applicants with no criminal records, even while (wink, wink) giving fair consideration to all qualified applicants.

All of this leads us up to the most Big Brotherly data collection of them all. Education is viewed as correlating with many key career and life outcomes: employment, family, citizenry and according to some, even health.  The case has also been made for the collection of student unit records to enable sophisticated statistical tools to identify those educational policies and practices that lead to particularly successful outcomes. At first glance, the case is a compelling one.

Except that the individuals whose records are being collected have no choice, and no voice. Any student attending certain colleges in one of the 40 states gathering unit record data is subject to this data collection, with all his/her triumphs and failures permanently on file in a state education office.

This is compounded by the fact that while some states have been gathering student unit records for a quarter of a century, with a state like California housing as many records as do entire countries, there have been no enhanced educational outcomes or effective policies emerging as a result of the collection and use of these student records.

Faced with this absence of concrete results, advocates of data collection are now trying to persuade legislators of the need for more data, specifically a national unit record system.

Putting aside the astronomical costs involved and the millions of productive hours wasted, this national collection of educational records would constitute the motherlode of all databases, particularly when cross-linked to other databases such as those of health, employment, criminal record, and credit worthiness.

There is no point discussing privacy protection. Those who believe in a national database of student unit records will refer to laws and law enforcement. Those who are more skeptical will point to the "data breach of the day" column in their local newspaper.

More relevant is the fact that every person is entitled to a copy of his or her own record. Employers will know this too. And while laws can be passed making it illegal to require an applicant to submit a copy of his or her student unit record, nothing can prevent an employer from favoring applicants who "willingly" share their personal documents.

Nor is it just employers who will want to know. Venture capitalists, graduate and professional school admissions officers, and future business partners also will want to know everything about a person before making any kind of commitment or investment.

Sad. College has always been a time for growth, for experimentation, for change. Young people could make false starts knowing that they could always start fresh. Few people were watching and even fewer recording.

All this will change should we accede to pressures for a national student unit record system. The sense of freedom and independence which characterizes youth will be compromised by the albatross of a written record of one’s younger years in the hands of government.

Nobody should be sentenced to a lifetime of looking over his/her shoulder as a result of a wrong turn or a difficult term during college. Nobody should be threatened by a loss of personal privacy, and we as a nation should not experience a loss of liberty because our government has decreed that a student unit record is the price to pay for a postsecondary education.

Bio

Bernard Fryshman is a professor of physics and a former accreditor.

 

 

 

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