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Federal "barcode" could monitor college students

Washington-Seattle Daily | July 6 2005
By Blythe Lawrence

"Big brother" is watching you, and it knows your name, your Social Security number and whether you passed econ last quarter.

Or at least it might, if the federal government decides to implement a proposal that would allow it to more closely monitor students' progress through college.

The plan would make it mandatory for colleges and universities to provide more detailed information about its students and would compile information in an immense database that would be updated every few months. The proposed tracking system stemmed from a Congressional review of the Higher Education Act, which authorizes the government's student aid programs.

The Department of Education's proposal has sparked fierce outcry from the proposal's detractors, including UW President Mark Emmert, who told The Wall Street Journal such a system was "unwise in its formulation and impractical in its application."

Respecting student privacy is a huge concern for the UW administration, said Ernest Morris, vice president of student affairs. Morris said he agreed with concerns being projected by student rights groups and expressed doubts about whether the government would adequately protect student information.

"We have deep concerns about where the system might take us," Morris said. "We take very seriously the obligation to protect [a student's information]."

A post-secondary institution is already required to provide the government with statistical breakdowns of its students. But under the present system, administrators are only required to provide the most basic information about the activities of its students -- how many degrees it awards each year, how much money in student aid it doled out and what percentage of students received it.

A student who pays for tuition without help from scholarships or government financial aid packages may think a government agency has no business monitoring their successes or failures. But for those who do take advantage of the nearly $80 billion in student aid available from the U.S. government this year, the question of how much the government is entitled to know gets a bit trickier.

"Some argue that [a tracking system is] necessary to promote increased accountability," Morris said. "We think it puts the private acts of the individual student at risk. The proposed system would fly in the face of that, and we worry about the government's ability to protect these data."

Lawmakers have amended the proposed tracking system, and now say it would assign each student a 14-digit "barcode" that would compile enrollment statistics anonymously, without revealing the student's name or social security number, according to a Wall Street Journal report last month.

Still, the idea of being tracked so closely by the government has left some students feeling uneasy.

"I don't think it's necessary," said senior Chris McGrath. "The people that can afford to go to college aren't the ones our government needs to be worrying about."


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