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Student Database: Feds should not keep lists of college pupils

The Monitor | April 17, 2005

Is there something in the water that causes politicians and bureaucrats in Washington, D.C., to favor policies and programs that compile ever-growing mountains of information about American citizens? Does a breath of Beltway air turn a run-of-the-mill bureaucrat into a dyed-in-the-wool snoop?

Over the years, Uncle Sam has morphed into Big Brother, amassing data on just about every resident of the country. Federal laws now give the Internal Revenue Service, the Social Security Administration, the Department of Homeland Security and other agencies power to coerce information from Americans under threat of prosecution if we don’t comply.

Take the Social Security number; when it came out, the government said it wasn’t supposed to be used as a form of identification. Now you can’t enroll in college or get a driver’s license without one; the IRS even requires the numbers for newborns. Speaking of the IRS, that tax agency makes taxpayers divulge all sorts of personal, private information on their returns.

The federal beast’s appetite for information never wanes. The latest example comes from the U.S. Department of Education, which wants to keep dossiers on every college student in the country.

As Knight Ridder Newspapers reported last week, the federal agency would like to force colleges to turn over information on the 15 million students attending 6,000 institutes of higher learning throughout the country.

Officials say they need detailed information on each student — including names and Social Security numbers — to more accurately track graduation rates. However, schools already give aggregate data on students to the federal government. But the feds want specifics on every individual student.

This massive intrusion on student privacy should not take place. Not only would this create another bureaucracy with the potential for abusing our ever-dwindling civil liberties, it would also leave students more vulnerable to identity theft.

College students recognize the danger in allowing the feds to keep such close tabs on them. Knight Ridder reported that college newspapers across the country printed editorials opposing the idea of a massive student database.

In addition, as Katherine Haley Will, president of Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, wrote in the Washington Post, just building such a database would add to the already-immense operating costs facing institutes of higher education.

"Collecting and compiling data for such a system would increase college and university costs for hardware, staffing and training," she wrote. "Such costs would join surging health care and energy expenses in pushing tuitions up."

A national student database would cost $10 million to $12 million, according to an Education Department official quoted by Knight Ridder. Of course, these massive federal projects seldom come in under budget, and taxpayers could expect a more expensive final tab for the undertaking. Even if it did come close to this budget, that money could be better spent on student grants than student surveillance.

The best argument against compiling this massive database, however, is that it’s none of the government’s business.

As the Gettysburg College president put it in the Post, "Federal officials have shown no compelling public policy need that outweighs Americans’ basic expectations of privacy."

That’s a lesson the feds need to learn.

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