Privacy and Politics

Wisconsin-Madison criticized for using financial aid data for political purposes -- but officials say concerns only distract attention from a big budget impasse.
October 10, 2007

When Gov. Jim Doyle made plans to come to the University of Wisconsin's Madison campus for a Tuesday press conference about the need-based Wisconsin Higher Education Grant (WHEG), campus officials sent an e-mail to students whose aid awards have been blocked by a statewide budget standoff to see if they might want to participate. “The governor is looking for a few UW-Madison students who are WHEG-eligible for the 2007-08 year but who have not been awarded WHEG because they are ‘wait-listed’ due to the budget impasse,” says the e-mail, sent by the student financial services office to 33 Madison students identified as having received the grant in the previous academic year.

“You are under no obligation whatsoever to participate in this press conference. Your financial aid package is not dependent upon your willingness to stand with the Governor or speak at the conference. Your participation is completely voluntary and at your discretion,” the e-mail continues, its tone “as passive as that kind of a message can get,” as a UW system spokesman, David Giroux, put it.

But the words were controversial nevertheless. Should colleges be in the business of using student data to further a political goal? Even one as (relatively) uncontroversial as student aid appropriations?

In a complaint mailed Monday to the U.S. Department of Education’s Family Policy Compliance Office, the Wisconsin College Republicans question whether the use of private financial aid data to identify likely participants constitutes a violation of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).

“We’re trying to understand why the university would contact students based on financial aid or grant status to participate in a political press conference with our governor,” said Ryan Wrasse, a senior at UW Stevens Point and the state chair for the Wisconsin College Republicans. (Governor Doyle is a Democrat.)

“All laws aside, we also think there are clear ethics violations here. We just didn’t think it was a very good use of common sense to contact students based on grant status to participate in a political road show with the governor.”

Recipients of the e-mail were not able to identify the other recipients and, as university representatives pointed out, the e-mail was sent from the student financial services office, obviously the keeper of financial aid data. "We feel that we really did respect FERPA and that no student information was ever released or out of the hands of the appropriate data guardian," said John Lucas, a UW Madison spokesman -- who also pointed out that students had the option to delete the e-mail and be done with it.

But regardless, Wrasse questioned whether the very act of recruiting students for a political event constitutes an example of a “legitimate educational interest” that would allow student data to be disclosed. “Using financial aid data to find students to get them to be political props is not a legitimate educational purpose,” Wrasse said.

UW officials defended the e-mail Tuesday and said that the College Republican complaint serves as a distraction from the real issue -- the 5,544 UW System students whose names are on a waiting list for need-based state grants that they’re eligible for but can't get their hands on. The state is now more than three months late in passing a budget.

“These are students who on average come from families earning $27,000 or less on a per-household budget. They’re waiting for an average award of $2,100,” said Giroux, the system spokesman.

The federal complaint, Giroux said, “is a nice distraction from the real issue and the real issue is we have students whose educational future is very much hanging in the balance. People are trying to sweep that issue under a rug and create an air of scandal where none exists. I can’t help but wonder when people are going to see through that.”

In neighboring Michigan, legislators recently approved a budget (albeit a temporary budget maintaining current spending levels) in the wee hours of a new fiscal year to avert a government shutdown. In Wisconsin -- now the last state to approve a budget -- there was no shutdown when the fiscal year ended June 30 without a budget for the current biennium. But with spending levels automatically, well, level, the government "sure does slow down," Giroux said.

At the press conference on Madison’s campus Tuesday, Doyle announced that he will call a special legislative session this Monday so lawmakers can discuss a “compromise” budget bill. Wisconsin Democrats and Republicans have clashed in recent months on new tax increases and spending levels; as chronicled in this Associated Press article, the Democrat-controlled Senate and Republican-controlled Assembly passed two separate budget plans separated by a $10 billion gap. Democrats have called for new taxes on cigarettes, oil company earnings and hospitals to pay for health care and transportation initiatives, while the Republican Assembly proposed lower spending levels -- including $120 million in fewer funds for the University of Wisconsin -- and no new tax hikes.

Funding in any new budget for the Wisconsin Higher Education Grant, an entirely need-based award for UW System students (and state residents), could vary from a low of $39.3 million, under the Assembly’s proposal, to about $50 million, the governor’s recommendation, said Connie Hutchison, executive secretary of the State of Wisconsin Higher Educational Aids Board. Facing uncertainty about the extent of any appropriation, the agency began wait-listing eligible students for the award -- which has a $2,760 annual per-student maximum -- on June 26. Typically, Hutchison said, the agency does not begin wait-listing students until November or December.

“The one thing we don't want to do is promise students that they’re going to get their money and then have to ask them to return it,” said Hutchison.

"Truly we believe that it’s in the institution’s and the student’s interest to have financial aid," Lucas, UW Madison's spokesman, said of the now-notorious e-mail. In the end, Lucas said, one student ended up speaking at the news conference Tuesday.

"The chancellor, the provost and the Board of Regents have all been advocates for students about financial aid and in particular the WHEG grant. In our view of this, what we’ve done is provide students an opportunity to advocate on their own behalf.”


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