To learn more about you, we’d like some information about you and your college experience. Please provide us with your social security number, date of birth, address, race or ethnicity, gender, your major, number of credits attempted and completed and your financial aid data – from both the state and federal level.
And then, if you don’t mind, we’d like to be informed if anything – yes, anything – changes throughout your college career. We’ll require that some information be updated immediately while only nagging for other stuff once a year.
No, The Temple News doesn’t want to learn everything about you. But the National Center for Education Statistics, a branch of the federal Department of Education, hopes to learn more about college students than they already know.
All of the questions listed above are taken from a new proposal sent to Congress by the NCES, which suggests overhauling the current system that measures postsecondary statistics. The impetus for the plan is an interest by educators and legislators to attain more specific and accurate measures of what college life is all about.
Although the improvements will undoubtedly aid in understanding overarching trends of college students, those students concerned about maintaining their privacy should meet the plan with apprehension.
Designers of the federal student unit record system say it won’t ask for much more than the current systems. According to their report, almost every college and university – including Temple – tracks enrollment rates, course registration and degree completion using the same information the national program would ask for.
Thirty-nine states also have some type of unit record system for education statistics, but are limited in their accuracy because, according to the report, “most do not include data on students attending private institutions, or students who leave an institution and transfer across state lines.”
Current measures chalk up transfer students as new students, which skew graduation rates, and statistics for non-traditional students – those who return to school later in life – are also shaky. The new system, however, would make the submission of information mandatory for schools and students and would require constant updates, which would track students throughout their college career no matter where they go.
This umbrella would throw the private information of about 15 million students from 6,000 colleges and universities into a national database, according to Knight Ridder News Services, and could be tested as soon as next year if Congress OKs the plan.
Supporters of the database say there’s little risk in providing the federal government with student information, citing the government’s track record in protecting private records from the prying eyes of hackers.
The government might have more defense mechanisms than any other institution, but their firewalls aren’t invincible and as the NCES report notes, some agencies could access the records, including the Department of Defense, if they claim it’s to fight terrorism.
One of the biggest issues surrounding the national plan is the use of social security numbers as the primary identifier for students.
By the end of the summer Temple will no longer use social security numbers as identifiers, opting to dole out random TUid numbers to ensure student privacy. The national database planners are kicking around similar concepts, with some mentioning individual barcode trackers that would be harder to connect to students.
The benefits of the federally mandated program seem great. If officials are better able to track and report more accurate trends, like graduation rates and the importance of student aid, students and parents will be able to make more confident decisions regarding higher education. Educators will see which programs do and don’t work, and legislators will be able to focus aid or future laws on educational fault lines.
But if the proposal’s benefits are to outweigh its hindrances, students – who won’t be able to refuse inclusion in the database – must be vocal and persistent in holding the government as accountable for our privacy as it’s planning to hold our records.