A Short Note About a Long(itudinal) Topic

Data theft is not the only way a federal plan to track students could rob them of privacy, Bernard Fryshman warns.


October 17, 2006

Once again we in higher education are being offered student unit (“longitudinal”) records as the panacea for all our accountability problems. The U.S. Department of Education, through the Secretary’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education, proposes to follow each and every student from the time he or she enters college until a point well into the work world, and expects that all kinds of answers regarding institutional effectiveness will be revealed. The idea certainly sounds good, except that it doesn't work in the real world.

Consider that 39 states have been collecting such data, some for more than 20 years. Analysts can work with billions of records using highly sophisticated tools, yet there is no indication that states have experienced enhanced educational outcomes or generated particularly wise policies as a result of the collection and use of student unit records.  

Wouldn't it make sense to test the concept of enhanced accountability using existing data before thinking about a nationwide system, especially since the theft of such personal data could have so serious an impact on so many people?

I am not the first to suggest that the Department of Education will not be able to protect unit record data. A collection system of the kind proposed will constitute the motherlode of all databases. Seventeen million dossiers, one for each postsecondary student in America -- growing by several million each year and possibly linked to a number of other national databases relating to health, employment and criminal justice -- constitutes an irresistible target.  

The potential for abuse is unlimited and I fear that all the protections that will be put into place will not suffice to defend this data against theft.  

But there will be a loss of privacy even if the data remain secure.  And this may be the biggest cost of a unit record database.

College is a time for growth, for experimentation and for change.  Students need the freedom to make mistakes and to start afresh. Now consider a student who was unable to make a successful transition to College A at 18 and wants to start all over at College B four or five years later. He is willing to forgo transfer credits and doesn't mention his earlier, embarrassing failure. But a unit record match will quickly bring his past to the attention of people at College B.  

Students change in many ways. A young lady who listed her ethnicity one way and now believes it should be something else will be tripped up.  So too will be people who change their names, or those who want to attend a different college, but don't want people at their previous institution to know where they went.

Perhaps the most significant loss of privacy will come at the point of employment.  Every person will be entitled to receive a copy of his/her longitudinal record to make corrections as appropriate. Everyone -- employers, family and other close associates -- will know this.

Prospective employers will then expect that applicants will "voluntarily" offer to share their official unit record dossiers. So too, will new business associates, and conceivably even people contemplating a close personal relationship.  

Laws can be passed making it illegal to require anyone to submit such documents, but no law can prevent people from "voluntarily" offering to share this information.

Given that there is no evidence that a unit record system will produce desired results, isn't the possible loss of one's personal privacy too steep a price to pay in order to receive a postsecondary education?


Bernard Fryshman is executive vice president of the Association of Advanced Rabbinical and Talmudic Schools’ Accreditation Commission.


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