American Public Gives Low Marks to Proposed Federal Database of College Students

July 7, 2006

Threat to Privacy, Security Risks, and Financial Costs Cited as Factors against a National Student Tracking System  

Washington, D.C., July 6, 2006—Americans overwhelmingly object to a proposed federal system for tracking each college student’s academic, financial aid, and enrollment information in a central database, according to poll results released today by the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.


A recently released (June 22) draft report by the U.S. Secretary of Education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education calls for the creation of a "national student unit record tracking system" to collect longitudinal data on college students. The proposal comes on the heels of a continued effort by officials at the U.S. Department of Education during the past two years to develop such a system, despite growing concern about invasion of student privacy. Such a system would substantially change the way the federal government collects higher education data. The department currently collects only aggregate data from institutions.


The survey found that:


  • Sixty-two percent of the respondents oppose the proposed federal data collection effort, while 33 percent support it.
  • By a factor of more than two to one (68 percent to 27 percent), Americans think that enough information is already collected at the college and university level. They believe that dredging for more data would be a breach of students’ privacy that could result in the misuse of their personal information.
  • Sixty percent of Americans believe that collecting individual student data is costly, intrusive, and does not address a pressing public policy issue. Only 34 percent support the idea.

The survey of 1,000 American adults was conducted June 23-27 by Ipsos Public Affairs. Its margin error is +/- 3.1 percent.


As envisioned by supporters of the "student unit record tracking system," student information would be linked to individuals through a unique identifier. Opponents are concerned that the system could potentially be tied to information from the student’s high school and elementary records, and follow the individual into the workforce.


"It is ironic that we are considering such an assault on Americans’ privacy and security in the shadow of the Fourth of July, when we celebrate the American values of freedom and choice," said David L. Warren, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.


Rebecca Thompson, legislative director of the United States Student Association, said, "USSA feels that this is a massive invasion of student privacy. We fear that information in this proposed database could be used for purposes that are unrelated to higher education."


"The proposed student unit record database goes against the commission’s own goal of reducing the federal regulatory burden on higher education," said David Shi, president of Furman University.


Katherine Will, president of Gettysburg College, added that there is "no compelling need for this database. There is no clear case for public policy that would be informed by the information gathered."


Christopher Nelson, president of St. John’s College, called the student unit record database "an Orwellian proposal that would federalize higher education."


"What this poll tells us is that the proposal should be DOA. The public is opposed to it, and the House has already shown its opposition in the Higher Education Act. The commission would do well to reconsider its support for this idea," said Loren Anderson, president of Pacific Lutheran University.


Ralph Wagoner, president of the Lutheran Educational Conference of North America, said, "Supporters of the proposal say it will promote accountability. However, we are already held accountable through the accrediting process, existing federal and state regulations, our trustees, and, most important, by the marketplace."


"This is not a partisan issue," said Rolf Wegenke, president of the Wisconsin Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. "It is a matter of student privacy and the security of personal information."

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