Feds May Launch Student Database

Records will track academics, tuition payments and financial aid benefits

Federal officials are considering a proposal to launch a massive database that would track college students’ academic progress, tuition payments and financial aid benefits in an effort to gather improved data on higher education.

Proponents of the move say the expanded database could help officials craft more sensible public policies. Opponents fear that the plan could facilitate large-scale infringements on students’ privacy.

The proposal—currently being vetted by Department of Education officials—would expand an existing database to allow researchers to track individual students who drop out of college or transfer between institutions. It would include information ranging from social security numbers to participation in varsity sports.

The proposal would require congressional approval and will likely be put to a vote when the Higher Education Act comes up for reauthorization early next year. A pilot version of the program could be launched as soon as 2006, and the database could be fully operational by the 2007-2008 academic year, said David L. Wright, a senior research analyst at State Higher Education Executive Officers, a Denver-based group that is supporting the proposal.

Colleges receiving federal funds would be required to submit records to the tracking system, and students would not have the ability to opt out, said Jasmine L. Harris, legislative director at the United States Students Association, which opposes the expanded database.

But Professor Carolyn M. Hoxby ’88, who teaches a popular undergraduate course on the economics of education, said the changes “would make a tremendous, positive difference in the amount of information that we have on what’s going on in higher education.”

Hoxby said researchers “know that relatively few students complete college on time, but we cannot figure out where they are all falling through the cracks.” She said improved data could enable policymakers to design more effective financial aid programs.

Opponents of the change—including Sarah A. Flanagan, vice president for governmental relations at the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities—argue that any gain from more accurate data would be minimal. “Do [policymakers] really need to know why Johnny Jones transferred from Institution A to Institution B?” asked Flanagan. “We already have a pretty good idea of what’s going on in American higher education. We don’t think it’s worth the trade-off in student privacy.”

Harvard is a member of Flanagan’s association, but the University has yet to take a stance on the proposal, according to senior director of federal and state relations Kevin Casey. “At this early stage in the process we are monitoring this closely,” Casey wrote in an e-mail.

The proposal has driven a wedge between public universities, whose heads largely support the change, and private institutions, whose leaders are among the proposal’s most vehement critics.

Wright, whose organization represents state school chief executives, said that cur-rent measurements of graduation rates assume students will earn their degrees within six years.

“For colleges like Harvard, that’s a fine measure because most of the freshman class is full-time and progresses in a linear fashion toward graduation,” Wright said.

But at public schools—with more part-time and transfers students, the current system writes off as “drop-outs” many students who ultimately graduate.“We’re forced to adopt this cookie-cutter approach to assessing student progress,” Wright said.

But according to Flanagan, “most private college presidents say that we don’t have a right to give up our students’ privacy to make our graduation rates look better.”

Advocates for the change say the Department of Education would implement several safeguards to protect against potential privacy infringements. “Researchers do not get the sort of individual information that would allow them to identify individual students,” Hoxby said. She added that the researchers who do get access to the database are serious scholars who must sign confidentiality pledges that are “explicit, thorough and enforced.”

Wright said that “there’s never been a breach of student unit records in the long history of the National Center [for Education Statistics]”—the arm of the Department of Education that would administer the database.

But Flanagan said the National Center’s statisticians—although “they’re great people who do great research”—lack the political clout to block other government agencies who demand access to the database.

To implement the expanded database, Congress would have to amend the Family Education and Privacy Rights Act, which bars schools that receive federal funds from releasing private records without the permission of students or their parents, said Harris. Once that provision is modified, officials from governmental agencies outside the Department of Education would face fewer hurdles in accessing student records, Harris said.

After Sept. 11, government officials have been particularly hostile to privacy claims, Harris said. “There is nothing to ensure that the database can’t be used for alternate purposes in the future.”

—Staff writer Daniel J. Hemel can be reached at hemel@fas.harvard.edu.