Student Progress over privacy?

    In response to national concerns regarding the future of higher education, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings last week called for immediate attention to issues of access, affordability and — the thorniest topic — accountability of U.S. universities, including introducing an idea to implement a student-tracking database, which has raised privacy concerns among college groups nationwide.

    Spellings’ newest action plan addresses the worries of the 19-member Commission on the Future of Higher Education that she created last year to launch a national dialogue on the need to strengthen higher education to maintain global competitiveness. Among many findings, the report stated that the U.S. college attainment rate has fallen to ninth among major industrialized countries, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, with only one-third of Americans earning college degrees.

    In order to combat the decline, the commission has urged a dramatic overhaul of the current system, which has become “increasingly risk-averse, at times self-satisfied and unduly expensive,” the report stated.

    “This is the beginning of a process of long-overdue reform,” Spellings said in her speech last week. “Over the years, we’ve invested tens of billions of dollars in taxpayer money [in higher education] and just hoped for the best. We deserve better than that.”

    While the September report has spurred discussion as planned, it has also sparked a heated debate over the most controversial section, which authorizes the implementation of a national student-tracking database that Spellings has soundly endorsed.

    Known as a “unit recorder,” this device would track individual student progress over time in order to better assess and compare the quality of institutions while also holding universities accountable for student success.

    It could include information such as a student’s major, financial aid information, admissions data and college completion rate. Because current data systems are so restricted, it’s hard for parents, students and policymakers to obtain reliable information about students’ progress through the educational pipeline, the report stated.

    The data currently available is limited to first-time, full-time students, who comprise about 50 percent of the student body. This leaves the other 50 percent of adult returnees, transfer students and part-time students unaccounted for, the commission found.

    Although the apparatus is only one small provision in a larger proposal, it would help pave the way toward achieving other goals, according to the commission.

    “We believe that improved accountability is vital to ensuring the success of all the other reforms we propose,” the report stated. “Colleges and universities must become more transparent about cost, price and student success outcomes.”

    However, some sectors of higher education have voiced opposition due to the possibility of violating existing privacy laws and the high cost of implementation.

    While providing information is important, Spellings must be cautious about the possible risks of such a database, according to Association of American Universities spokesman Barry Toiv.

    “We must [achieve accountability] in a way that doesn’t create more problems than we’re trying to solve,” Toiv said. “It’s not a question of ruling out the possibility of getting information; it’s about providing information in a way that doesn’t threaten privacy.”

    The proposed student-tracking system would be privacy-protected, according to Spellings; however, a method for safeguarding information has not been specified. While some worry about student privacy, others, like Revelle College junior Connor Sawaske, don’t see a threat in executing the accountability plan.

    “[A particular student] would just be another name on a long list,” Sawaske said. “I highly doubt it would be to the point where someone could just look up your name and see how you’re doing. That kind of thing would never fly.”

    Getting approval from Congress may pose an uphill battle for Spellings. Last March, the House of Representatives passed HR 609, which strictly forbids such a unit recorder. The House of Representatives and the White House have also backed alternative proposals on scientific research and education that are more modest in scope and costs less, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

    The implementation of the student database alone is estimated to cost $10 million to $100 million, the American Council on Education stated.

    In addition, the upcoming November election, which could change the makeup and possibly the control of both houses of Congress.

    “I suspect that [the commission’s report] is not the top thing on [Congress’] mind right now,” Toiv said.

    Higher education officials support most of the commission’s proposal, and regard Spellings’ efforts as the first steps toward improvement.

    To confront access and affordability, Spellings plans to expand the principles of the No Child Left Behind Act to high school students in order to better prepare them for college, streamline the federal financial aid process to cut the time spent on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid in half and provide billions in federal funds to need-based financial aid.

    Spellings’ speech calmed the nerves of many college officials with its repeated emphasis on discourse.

    “We’re now hopeful that this could be a healthy exercise and that positive change is going to emerge,” Toiv said.

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