NAICU Letter to the Chronicle of Higher Education

April 09, 2009

Letters to the Editor
Chronicle of Higher Education

To the Editor:

Diane Auer Jones is a fair and independent thinker, and a friend of all sectors of higher education.  However, on the issue of a federal student unit record database, she does not fully understand the policy concerns of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (“Washington Has Failed the Workhorses of American Higher Education,” commentary, March 27).

There is a legitimate privacy question here, and to dismiss NAICU’s motives as being otherwise diminishes the very real changes in privacy policy that have emerged as these databases are built throughout the nation. 

Many of the students at private colleges and universities are nontraditional: 29 percent work full-time; 77 percent work part-time; 26 percent attend part-time; 30 percent are age 25 or older; and 48 percent are first-generation.  At-risk students are much more likely to graduate in four years at a private college than at a public university.  We are confident that under a federal student unit record database, our institutions’ completion rates would be similarly higher. 

However, this is a fundamental privacy question that focuses on who controls access to personal academic and financial data: students and their families, or state and federal governments.  NAICU's position has been to stand by the principles set down by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).  Adult students and parents of minor students are the ones who retain first control over personally identifiable academic and financial records. 

Under FERPA, individual students must be informed of the government’s intent, give consent, and have the right to opt out of any use of personal academic or financial records outside of their college or university.  Proponents of the federal student unit record database have told us that applying the FERPA guidelines would be “too hard” and that too many families would not give consent. 

NAICU has never objected to tracking federal aid recipients, since they voluntarily fill out the FAFSA, and turn over their confidential information as a part of the application process.  Student unit record systems currently under development track all students, even those not receiving federal aid, and neither inform families nor give them an opt-out option.

NAICU agrees with Ms. Jones that better completion data is needed.  In December 2002, prior to Margaret Spellings talking the helm at the Education Department, and before the idea of a federal student database had gathered steam, NAICU submitted a proposal asking for the department to improve its student aid tracking system for graduation rate purposes. 

We also agree that community colleges, with their focus on universal access and affordability, are a vital component of U.S. higher education.  However, sacrificing student and family privacy rights for an all-encompassing federal tracking system is a policy trade off we don’t believe is in the best interest of students, their families, or the nation. 


David L. Warren
National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities
Washington, D.C.

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