In an effort to improve the quality of its higher-education data, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) is planning to test the feasibility of collecting enrollment information–including names, addresses, and Social Security numbers–for each individual college and university student in the nation.

“Such statistics would, for the first time, give policy makers and consumers accurate and comprehensive information about higher education in this country,” ED spokeswoman Stephanie Babyak said in a statement.

If the pilot is successful, it could replace the current data reporting system known as the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). Through this system, institutions now provide the federal government with various aggregated data such as enrollment, graduation rates, and student financial aid statistics–but much of the data are incomplete and don’t tell the whole story.

For example, a student who drops out of one school but graduates from another would simultaneously increase the dropout rate and graduation rate of schools nationwide. By collecting more data sets that are tied to each individual student, the National Center on Education Statistics (NCES), which houses the data, hopes to rectify these types of inaccuracies.

About 1,500 colleges and universities are expected to pilot the new database during the 2006-07 school year, but that ultimately depends on whether Congress will appropriate funds and require the pilot in its reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.

If the pilot proves successful and eventually is mandated for all institutions, it would mean every college and university in the United States would have to overhaul its databases to provide NCES with graduation rates and tuition costs for each student attending its school.

Advocates for the new database of student records say better statistics will help improve access to higher-education and financial aid programs. They also want to see greater accountability for how federal funds are spent at institutions of higher learning, especially with tuitions increasing by 10 percent each year.

“We think it will significantly improve the information we have on the affordability of higher education and student success rates,” said Paul E. Lingenfelter, executive director of the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, which serves the board members of state postsecondary schools. “The information we have on the successful participation in higher education is very spotty.”

The current system only accounts for how many students enrolled and how many graduated during the time it takes to complete a particular course, but it loses track of everyone who entered the program late, everyone who left, everyone who became a part-time student, and so on. “When the student is a moving target in both time and place, there is no way you can answer these questions unless you keep track of each student,” Lingenfelter said.

Better data, Lingenfelter explained, will lead to better programs to develop and sustain great systems of higher education. “When the numbers aren’t good, it mobilizes public policy,” he said. It will also allow policy makers to answer an infinite number of questions.

Groups that represent the interests of students or private colleges and universities balk at the costs associated with being forced to change their computer systems to accommodate the new database requirements. They also say collecting data that are tied directly to each student compromises students’ privacy.

“An incredible potential exists for confidential information being used inappropriately,” Sarah Flanagan, vice president for government relations at the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, told The Boston Globe. “There is a Big Brother aspect of all of this that concerns us.”

She added: “I simply don’t believe that statisticians at the Department of Education will have the political power to prevent subsequent use of this [information] by interested parties who will have a lot more sway.”

Jasmine Harris, legislative director for the U.S. Student Association, said her organization opposes the pilot program proposal because it would violate the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act, a law that protects student privacy.

“And we feel that the system would be misused,” Harris said. “Considering this current political climate [since Sept. 11, 2001], this kind of data in a single database could be very appealing” to law-enforcement officials.

Harris explained: “There have been instances where one database was created for a particular purpose but used for something else.” The National Directory of New Hires, a database of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, was created to track job trends in the U.S. but was later used to track parents who were delinquent in paying child support, she said.

ED, which held three public meetings this past fall with key stakeholders from schools, states, and other interested parties to get feedback and suggestions, says the pilot is meant to examine privacy issues as well as the reporting burden and technical capabilities the plan would require.

Another concern, Harris cited, is that students cannot opt out from participating in the list–and it will cost millions of dollars to implement at a time when budgets everywhere are strapped. “We feel as much money needs to go to student aid as possible, and not a database that [infringes] upon student privacy,” Harris said.

In its original proposal, NCES said the new database system “will be as safe and secure as the systems at [the Internal Revenue Service].”

Currently, 39 states have some form of a student unit record system for higher education, ED said. Many states, particularly Florida and Texas, have database programs in place that track students from kindergarten to the completion of higher education. Tennessee is also in the process of implementing a K-20 data warehouse.

In Florida, Lingenfelter said, policy makers can tell how well students fare in higher education based on the courses they took in high school.

Links:

U.S. Department of Education
http://www.ed.gov

National Center on Education Statistics
http://nces.ed.gov

Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) Student Unit Record Feasibility Study
http://nces.ed.gov/ipeds/trpurs.asp

State Higher Education Executive Officers Association
http://www.sheeo.org

National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities
http://www.naicu.edu