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Education Department weighing national student database

WASHINGTON—Say you've just enrolled in college. Would you want your name and Social Security number put into a national student database in Washington?

You wouldn't have a choice under a scenario envisioned by the Department of Education, which is considering a plan to maintain files on virtually every college and university student in the country: 15 million students from 6,000 schools.

Federal education officials and supporters in the higher education community contend that the system would improve the tracking of graduation rates and help measure quality in higher education.

But other college and university leaders warn that it would raise the shadow of Big Brother at a time when many Americans are nervous about their privacy. There's also growing concern about identity theft.

"We've all got horrors that we can imagine if that database were put together," said David Shulenburger, provost at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. "The general rule is if you've got a very large downside and not a very large upside, you avoid it. I see a very large downside."

Supporters say the idea is neither new nor newly threatening: Thirty-nine states already require public colleges and universities to supply students' personal data.

In an interview last week, a top federal education official said that in response to worries over privacy, the department was exploring alternatives to using Social Security numbers. Grover Whitehurst, the director of the Education Department's Institute of Education Sciences, said officials had been discussing giving students individual bar codes instead.

"That would be a record that cannot be easily attached to other personally identifiable information," he said. "We've just thrown it out in the last week, so this is just kind of a toe in the water to see if it would satisfy some of the concerns, which are legitimate."

The idea for a national student database, first discussed last fall, grew out of the same push for more accountability in education that spawned the No Child Left Behind Act. That law has altered priorities and goals at the elementary and, to a degree, at the secondary school level.

Database backers in government and higher education say the ability to track students throughout their academic careers is being hamstrung.

Students are more mobile now. They transfer from school to school more often and drop out more frequently, sometimes returning years later to resume their studies. Each time they do, they're listed as new students, making graduation rates less reliable.

"It could probably be helpful, because it would track students and help ensure that the policies and student aid are accomplishing what they're set out to do," said Kerry Bolognese, the director of federal relations and higher education for the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges.

A national database would change how colleges and universities submit information to the federal government about enrollment, graduation rates and financial aid. Except for students who receive federal financial aid, the information is currently supplied in aggregate form without identifying students by name or Social Security number.

As outlined in an Education Department feasibility study, a database that used names and Social Security numbers would cover everyone, federal-aid recipients or not. Neither students nor schools could say no.

The study says security safeguards would prevent improper access to the database, noting that information compiled at the department's National Center for Education Statistics has never been "wrongfully disclosed."

"If collected, the data would be technologically protected and secure," the study says.

Still, there might be loopholes.

"Under the Patriot Act, the attorney general and the Department of Justice could conceivably obtain access ... to fight terrorism," the study says.

The idea has divided the higher education community largely along public- and private-school lines.

Travis Reindl of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, a national organization of public four-year schools, said opponents were "tapping into a rich political vein about worries about Big Brother, particularly in a post-Sept. 11 world."

Reindl calls the issue a smokescreen for opponents from private institutions, who don't want the government interfering in their schools, even though many of their students benefit from federal aid.

David Sallee, the president of William Jewell College, a private four-year liberal arts school in Liberty, Mo., said privacy concerns were paramount.

"Anytime we start tracking individuals worries me," Sallee said.

Students appear equally nervous. From New England to the West Coast, college newspapers have editorialized against the plan.

"Students are definitely aware of the government's involvement in personal lives that has become more and more apparent since 9-11," said Jasmine Harris, the legislative director of the U.S. Student Association, which represents more than 1 million college students.

Whitehurst said building the database would cost the federal government $10 million to $12 million. Costs to schools would vary.

If the idea proceeds, he said, the Education Department hopes that Congress would include it in the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, which expires this year. A pilot program involving 1,500 schools could begin next year.

"Higher education has transformed," Whitehurst said. "Now a student who starts at one school and finishes there is in the minority. Our statistics are getting really to a point where they poorly represent what's going on."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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