Privacy concerns have risen for college students because the U.S. government is considering creating a national database to increase federal oversight of universities and track the progress of every college student in the country.

“The big con is not necessarily with the Department of Education and their ability to use the data appropriately, but rather, the increasing disarmament of individual privacy by the federal government,” said Timothy Snyder, dean of the college of arts and sciences.

The database idea proposed by the National Center of Education Statistics (NCES) of the Department of Education, is designed to accurately record national trends in colleges and universities which would help the government decide where and how to spend federal funding.

The database would give each student a computer record that includes name, address, birth date, gender, race and Social Security number. It would track every student’s enrollment date, majors and minors, credits, tuition paid, financial aid received, and graduation date, erasing privacy from the picture.

“It will be like Big Brother constantly watching college students,” said Jennifer DeNapoli ’06. “They say they’re going to track certain things now, but that could lead to the tracking of more invasive things down the line. I don’t care if it will help the government. It’s my privacy.”

After the 2001 passing of the “No Child Left Behind Act,” a bill that requires testing in elementary and high schools to ensure that students are being appropriately educated, there has been a growing movement in Washington demanding more accountability from universities that receive federal support.

However, in order to do this, the government must track all students’ progress, not just those who receive federal aid.

According to Orin Grossman, Fairfield’s academic vice-president, Fairfield authorizes federal loans and receives federal grant money as well as allowing its students to use federal aid.

Using the new database, the government would use the information and trends they gather about Fairfield students on the database to determine how and where they grant this money.

Currently, American students who receive federally financed student aid are the only students whose information the government demands. Universities like Fairfield provide information about students who do not receive federal student aid in summary form at their own digression.

This allows those students to remain unidentified, but also makes national college statistics inaccurate. The government plans on correcting these inaccuracies with demanding the information of every college student.

Presently, the government cannot accurately track colleges’ trends because when students transfer, take classes part-time, or take time off before graduation, they appear as dropouts in federal rolls. This makes many universities’ reputations look worse than they are. According to the American Council on Education, over a third of college students in the United States transfer once, and 20 percent transfer twice or more.

Snyder explained that the proposal would not significantly affect Fairfield’s reputation.

“We have… an institutional model and tradition that emphasizes four contiguous years of education, so the impact [of this proposal] on us would be less than it would be for the likes of state institutions,” said Snyder.

“The current data tracking allows us [Fairfield] to compare how we are doing with other peer institutions,” said President Fr. Jeffrey von Arx. “With close to 80 percent of our students graduating in four years, we measure up very well.”

Although Fairfield’s reputation has withstood the current data tracking, the university does feel that there are occasional times when it is portrayed as less successful than it actually is, according von Arx. For example, when an athlete transfers to another school, it makes Fairfield’s athlete graduation rate drop. When the school dropped football, it had a huge impact on the athlete graduation rate.

Even so, von Arx says he thinks the new database wouldn’t be helpful to the university, and would probably be detrimental to students. Fairfield, other institutions, and education and civil liberties advocates are against the implementation of the database because of the fear of college students’ loss of privacy.

Some think that after the Sept. 11 attacks, a new era has risen, dismantling the balance between privacy and public interest. What the government decides “is best for the public” could increase the probability that the information on students could slip out or be misused.

“As for how it would be used inappropriately, the critics fear that it would be sought by other parts of the government,” Boston Globe reporter Marcella Bombardieri told The Mirror. “That could be law enforcement or anyone else gathering data.”

NCES says that they by law have never been allowed to share information they have gathered about universities with outside parties.

“Promises from the Department of Education may be kept, but that gives us no guarantee that other governmental agencies will allow the data to be used for its original intended purpose,” said Snyder. “So, as is always the case, this is an issue that requires a careful balancing of benefits and concerns; often that imparts change to the proposal, rather than an outright acceptance or rejection of it.”

The American Council on Education, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities and the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association all support the proposal because they agree it would help them determine how much financial assistance should go where.

The National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU) are against the idea because they believe students’ privacy is more important than the government’s desire to gain knowledge on collegiate trends.

“I find myself in agreement with the proposition being taken by the NAICU, which is concerned that the new student unit record database being proposed could compromise student privacy,” said von Arx. “There is a lot of justified concern over how the data would be used once collected, and just who would end up having access to it.”

“In general, we [Fairfield University] are opposed to the suggested changes,” said Grossman. “There are very serious privacy issues.”

Congress is expected to start considering the proposed idea early next year. If passed, a pilot study would be conducted on the database. Passing the plan would mean amending the federal privacy law that currently requires student or parental permission to release records.

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