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Student Records: Big Brother on campus

Seattle Post Intelligencer | June 11 2005

As they filled out numerous forms over the past four years or so, most of the newly graduating college students of the Class of 2005 probably felt like their lives had been reduced to numbers. Little did they know how true that could become for younger students.

Department of Education officials have sketched out a plan that, if approved, would gather sweeping amounts of information on every student. In some versions of the idea, authorities literally have envisioned individual bar code identifications for tracking each student in colleges and universities across the United States.

For a host of good reasons, the Independent Colleges of Washington, which represents 10 private institutions in the state, University of Washington President Mark Emmert and other education leaders have spoken out against the plan. The fatal flaws include privacy risks, annual costs to colleges of an estimated $1 billion and the enormous bureaucratic requirements for millions of individual student reports as often as every academic quarter.

Supporters of individual tracking say it would be a good way to monitor use of resources, including federal loans. But the plan inside the Education Department also envisions such information as private scholarships that students receive, the number of courses taken each semester, degree plans, names and Social Security numbers.

It all smacks of an effort to extend the clumsy No Child Left Behind system to higher education. That's particularly problematic for private institutions, which are best left as independent as possible. But UW's Emmert recently told The Wall Street Journal the idea is "unwise in its formulation and impractical in its application."

Republican U.S. Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, has come out against the idea, calling it overly broad. Instead, Boehner proposes putting new accountability and information mandates on colleges, an idea with, at least in past versions, serious flaws of its own. But congressional refusal to approve the so-called student unit record tracking would be a welcome relief for most colleges and students.



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