The Chronicle of Higher Education just posted an online news item about “Project Strike Back,” a program in which the U.S. Department of Education shared with the F.B.I. information about students who applied for federal financial aid. The article goes on to say that this data sharing was in response to an F.B.I. request after September 11 to find out if terrorists were stealing identities through the financial aid system.
Now, the news item all by itself might not have raised any concerns. It seemed as if the F.B.I. had some information that needed checking, and only about 1000 records out of many millions were involved. Surely, for the sake of national security, we all must understand that sometimes we need such investigations.
But there’s a much bigger issue at stake. For some time now, proposals have floated around to create one gigantic national database of all students in all colleges and universities — this is called the “unit record system” — so that all of the data can be more easily tracked over time. Proponents, such as the recently-completed Spellings Commission on the Future of Higher Education, believe that this will make information more “transparent” to student consumers of higher education. A distinguished college president wrote favorably about this yesterday in the Washington Post, pretty much dismissing anyone who sees a danger in creating a standardized national database of all college students.
I confess to being one of the private university presidents who just doesn’t get it about the link between “transparency” and one more gigantic federal database of personal information. I know how hard it is sometimes to keep track of our own students here at Trinity — 1700 strong — imagine a data base that would quickly grow to millions of student records. Imagine a regulatory world in which student performance data was then “standardized” such that student academic records would be all the same, whether from Trinity or SUNY or Dartmouth or Long Island University or Bennett or Miami-Dade. The mission of the college, the method of the faculty, the unique qualities of the students would not matter — all learning outcomes would be homogenized into a hierarchical set of measurements, just as a certain magazine uses what are largely financial and popularity benchmarks to rank colleges (and sell magazines) today. The cost of doing all of this will also surely drive tuition prices even higher as institutions will be forced to hire more staff and convert software (again!) to comply.
Proponents say that this giant database will lead to better information about what students are learning and how well universities are performing, and this will help consumers of higher education. My answer is that we already have numerous processes to do just that, from our own internal assessments to accreditation to competitive grants programs and the judgments of graduate schools and employers who take our students after graduation. Prospective students and their families are inundated with information about colleges, and they are largely smart and probing when it comes to finding out more about the schools in which they are really interested.
We don’t need yet one more level of federal bureaucracy that will raise even more dangers to personal privacy. “Project Strike Back,” however well-intended, is a sobering reminder of the reasons why a national student record system is a real strike-out for students and their institutions of higher education.