Collect the Data You Need, Not All the Data You Can

To the Editor:

In “Colleges’ Concerted Campaign for Ignorance” (The Chronicle, December 17), Kevin Carey continues his own concerted campaign of misrepresenting the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities’ reasons for opposing the development of a federal registry of college students. Impossible as it for Mr. Carey to fathom, the driving force behind our opposition to a federal student unit-record data system has always—and continues to be—the belief that the price for enrolling in college should not be permanent entry into a massive data registry. Such a registry would collect individual data about students throughout their lifetimes, with no serious discussion about what data should not be collected or what privacy safeguards would remain. One could argue that Mr. Carey and other proponents would prefer no safeguards, having free rein to collect what they want, when they want, without having to seek permission from Congress, students, parents, or anyone else.

We have good reason to be concerned that such a registry would prove irresistible to future demands for use and additions to the data for noneducational purposes. A 2009 study by the Center on Law and Policy Information at Fordham Law School on the state of privacy protection in states’ K-12 student databases (which, across the nation, are being linked to higher-education databases) provides some sobering revelations. According to the report’s executive summary:

Most states collected information in excess of what is needed for the reporting requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act and what appeared needed to evaluate overall school progress. The majority of longitudinal databases that we examined held detailed information about each child in what appeared to be non-anonymous student records. Typically, the information collected included directory, demographic, disciplinary, academic, health, and family information.

Some striking examples are that at least 32 percent of the states warehouse children’s Social Security numbers, at least 22 percent of the states record children’s pregnancies, at least 46 percent of the states track mental health, illness, and jail sentences as part of the children’s educational records, and almost all states with known programs collect family wealth indicators.

We found that, given the detailed and sensitive nature of the information collected, the databases generally had weak privacy protections. Often the flow of information from the local educational agency to the state department of education was not in compliance with the privacy requirements of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

Furthermore, as was reported by the media in February 2010, the Education Department’s head student-privacy official protested what he saw as the agency’s “zeal to encourage the collection of data about students’ academic performance” and argued that “the department’s approach to prodding states to expand their longitudinal student-data systems violated the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.” By happenstance, the official was fired by the department.

We recognize there are instances in which it is appropriate to collect individual student data. For instance, such data must be provided by recipients of federal student financial aid. There also are several longitudinal studies conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics in which individual student information is obtained to examine questions regarding college financing, student characteristics, program persistence and completion, and postbaccalaureate education and employment. However, these studies are based on a sample of students—not the entire college population.

The solution is not to collect whatever data that exists about an individual and then decide what to do with it, if anything. Policymakers need to specify what issue they want to address, what research questions help address those issues, what data inform those research questions, and what is the best way to collect that data within our culture of rights and laws. This has been woefully lacking in the current debate.

David L. Warren
National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities

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