For hundreds of students since 9/11, applying for a Pell Grant apparently has meant scrutiny from the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
The Associated Press  on Thursday lifted an embargo on an article distributed earlier in the week detailing a previously unknown effort -- called "Project Strike Back" -- in which the FBI worked with the Education Department to study financial aid applications. The AP worked with a student at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, who first spotted a reference to the program. As detailed by the AP, the FBI gave names to the Education Department of people on whom the bureau wanted more information. The department ran those names through its databases to determine which of them had applied for aid. The program was apparently shut down this year, around the time the Medill student was requesting information about it. About 1,000 people had been investigated.
"In the post-9/11 world, it's the job of the FBI to connect the dots and follow our investigation wherever it leads us," an FBI spokeswoman told the AP, adding that the program was both legal and limited, and did not involve random checks of students' aid applications, but only people who had been identified for some reason.
In an interview with Inside Higher Ed, Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president for government and public affairs at the American Council on Education, said he was concerned about the program and that it raised interesting issues for a debate over "unit records"  in higher education. But he also said he wasn't surprised by the FBI-Education Department cooperation.
"I think this is troubling, but not in the least bit surprising," Hartle said. "It's pretty obvious to anybody paying attention that the government is going to mine every single database they have to help them in the war on terror. There are no safe harbors with personal data as far as the federal government is concerned at the present time."
The forms the government obtained at the Education Department would have been applications for programs that are restricted to U.S. citizens. "They were looking for the next Timothy McVeigh, not the next Mohammad Atta," Hartle said.
It is also clear, he added, that the program didn't yield any results. If it had, Hartle said, the government wouldn't have shut it down.
Hartle said that it would be "hard to object" to a program going after specific individuals, where there is reason to believe that they may cause harm. But he said he was bothered that so little information has been released about the program. "It's another case where we don't exactly know what the boundaries are of the government's activities," he said.
The incident is particularly relevant now, Hartle said, because of the debate over unit records. The Education Secretary's Commission on the Future of Higher Education  has called for creating a national database of such records, which would allow federal officials to track what happens to a student as he or she moves through the educational pipeline.
Proponents of the idea say that with so many students moving from one college to another, or moving in and out of higher education, a national system is needed so that issues related to retention, graduation rates and educational quality can be measured. The idea has support from state higher education officials and from some educators, particularly those at community colleges, who believe that unit records can demonstrate their role in helping students move ahead in higher education. But many others -- particularly at private colleges -- have opposed unit records, warning that they would be a giant source of information with which the government could intrude on people's privacy.
Hartle said that these critics have been vindicated by the Education Department-FBI collaboration. "Those who have raised privacy concerns have been unfairly accused of raising an issue that would never happen," Hartle said. "This illustrates how easily it could happen."