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December 06, 2004

WHO CONTROLS your personal information? If you attend college, it could soon be the federal Department of Education, with or without your say-so. The feds say they need names, Social Security numbers and other identifying information to build a giant database so they can determine if the school you go to is doing a good job. We can think of better ways.

The department is proposing to scrap the summary reports now required from colleges and universities and replace them with a national system that tracks each student individually. A pilot of the record-collection system (which would be mandatory for 15,000 random schools in 2006) is slated to be included in next year's reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.

Congress should scrap it.

The department argues that for the sake of better school accountability -- the true rates of retention, graduation, cost per diploma -- it must collect personal profile information. For example, most community college graduation rates would rise if students who transferred and then graduated from another school could be tracked and counted as successes for the first college.

But would that really mean the starter college was more successful? Did students transfer because they were leaving a bad program or to be closer to their families? Is surrendering your Social Security number the only way to collect this data? No.

It's true that if a database contained everything about everybody, its statistics would be pretty darn good. But the Department of Education already has good data. It runs in-depth surveys of thousands of college students every two years. It gets aggregate data on how much federal aid is given out and to how many people, and the various yearly college reports, among others.

Part of the reason the data are so good is that many students release their private information -- they are required to if they apply for student financial aid. Their signatures on the forms acknowledge that they have given the government the right to pry, but only about the information directly related to the questions on that form. Under the new regime, no one would ask for permission and the government would force the schools to tell all.

The worry is the data could meet the same fate as the National Directory of New Hires, a register of people re-entering the work force. Intended to track only job trends, the database has since been used to track people who owe the government money or are late paying child support.

Already some state officials have said they would like to compare the names on the new school lists with prison and housing records, driver's licenses and employment data. And though the Education Department has done well protecting the privacy of other lists, could it firmly close the door if the Department of Homeland Security or the FBI knock?

There are strict laws ensuring privacy of student records, and rightly so. A change as tectonic as sharing private information without consent must be well-justified; in this case, it is not.

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