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US eyes collection of college-student data

Rights advocates express concerns about privacy

The federal government is considering the creation of a national database to collect information and track the progress of every college student in the country, triggering criticism from education and civil liberties advocates worried that it would amount to a loss of privacy for millions of Americans.

''An incredible potential exists for confidential information being used inappropriately" under the proposal, said Sarah Flanagan, vice president for government relations at the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. ''There is a Big Brother aspect of all of this that concerns us."

The idea, proposed by a research wing of the Department of Education, is designed to improve federal oversight of students' enrollment rates, graduation rates, and tuition. Currently, that information is provided only in summary form by universities, leaving gaps in national college statistics. When students transfer from one college to another, for example, they show up in the federal rolls as dropouts.

Now, however, there is a movement in Washington, particularly among Republicans, to demand greater accountability from universities in exchange for the federal support they provide. After the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act, which uses testing to hold primary and secondary schools accountable for student performance, ''a lot of folks in Washington began to ask, 'Do we have a good idea of what we are getting for our investment in higher education?'" said Travis J. Reindl, director of state policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

Some education groups believe that a new system for tracking students individually would provide far better answers to those questions. Under the new system proposed by the National Center for Education Statistics at the Department of Education, each student enrolled in college would have a computer record that included name, address, birth date, gender, race, and Social Security number. It would then track field of study, credits, tuition paid, and financial aid received and would follow the student if he or she transferred or dropped out and later reenrolled.

Many of today's college students are likely to transfer, study part time, leave school and reenroll, and take more than six years to earn their degree. For example, over a third of students transfer colleges at least once, and 20 percent transfer twice or more, according to the American Council on Education. Yet under the current data collection system, these students are marked as dropouts and never counted as a graduate of any school. That means graduate rates may appear artificially low, particularly at institutions with high numbers of ''nontraditional" students, who may be older and squeezing their college classes around a job.

''Some institutions look a lot less successful than they really are," said Reindl.

Reindl's group and some other major higher education associations, such as the American Council on Education, have given their support to the idea of testing out such a tracking system.

Congress is expected to start considering the proposal early next year as part of its periodic reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. If adopted, the tracking proposal would go through a pilot study before being implemented nationwide. Passing the plan would also require amending federal privacy law that currently calls for a student's or parent's permission to release most student records.

The Department of Education says students' privacy would not be violated because the department would not share the information with anyone else, including law enforcement. But opponents worry that that promise could quickly crumble in the post-9/11 environment.

''I simply don't believe that statisticians at the Department of Education will have the political power to prevent subsequent use of this by interested parties who will have a lot more sway," Flanagan said.

Marcella Bombardieri can be reached at bombardieri@globe.com.

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