The proposal to let the government monitor students’ progress through their higher educations—known as student-unit record-keeping—has significant ramifications for universities and colleges. Some would look better if more accurate success rates were made available to students. Some would look worse.
Now injected into this longstanding debate is the objection that collecting such data in an age of hacks, mistrust, political division, and a crackdown on immigrants threatens student privacy. That’s a position being taken by opponents as varied as the ACLU and the Tenth Amendment Center, which backs curbs on federal power.
“You start dumping that into these big databases and all of a sudden the federal government can track you all over the place,” said Michael Maharrey, the spokesman for the Tenth Amendment Center. “We’ve seen they’re not always trustworthy when it comes to the security of all this data.”
Critics cite a 2015 Government Accountability Office report showing that the number of breaches per year of personal information held by federal agencies more than doubled, to 27,624, from 2009 to 2014. They also draw attention to the 2015 hack of personnel records of 4 million federal employees and contractors and to the “longstanding weaknesses” in information security identified by the Department of Education’s inspector general in 2014.
“It only takes one person in the government who is untrustworthy and does the wrong thing with that information” to threaten someone’s personal privacy, Marlow said. “And if we were already concerned—and we were—should we be more concerned in the current political climate? The answer is absolutely yes.”
Colleges and universities themselves have split on the issue. Lobbying organizations representing public universities and community colleges, whose graduation rates would look better using student-unit record-keeping, now support it. But the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, made up of private, nonprofit institutions, is opposed, saying that the “systematic collection of data on individual students” would create “a serious and substantial risk to student privacy.”
On the other side are advocates for students who bemoan the “remarkable lack of transparency and accountability” that results from the vacuum of accurate data, as one organization—the Young Invincibles—put it in a position paper calling for such critical information as graduation rates to finally be accurately provided.
“Right now students are making one of the most important and most expensive decisions of their lives with very little concrete, verifiable information to go on,” said Amy Laitinen, the director of higher education at the think tank New America, a longtime proponent of student-unit record-keeping.
“If I had to choose between getting this important data and protecting Dreamers, I would choose the Dreamers. But it’s a false choice,” said Laitinen, who points out that the government already has plenty of information about DACA recipients, including the applications they filled out themselves.