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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University February 14, 2005 | Vol. 34 No. 22
Fed Proposal Seeks Data on Each Student

Universities concerned about use of info, privacy issues

By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette

The federal government is considering a major overhaul of its higher education data collection system that would require institutions like Johns Hopkins to submit information on a per-student basis, a potentially costly and privacy concern-riddled policy, warn some private college advocacy groups.

Currently, JHU and other U.S. colleges submit summary information once a year to the National Center of Education Statistics on categories such as undergraduate enrollments, graduation rates, tuition prices and types of financial aid awarded. The information provided goes into the Department of Education's Web-based Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, known as IPEDS.

In the proposed new "unit record" system, each school would submit records on individual students, including such details as Social Security number, gender, ethnicity, date of birth, tuition, loans, grant awards, permanent and local addresses, number of courses and number of credit hours. The proposed system would ask institutions to submit data on every enrolled student, both undergraduate and graduate. Colleges would also need to track and report all changes in a student's status, for example, whether the individual switches from full time to part time. A student's Social Security number would be used to match record files and identify the individual. The data base would be used to follow students who transfer to another institution. It would also be used to verify enrollment status for loans.

Advocates of the proposal are expected to seek to have it included in the Higher Education Act reauthorization, action on which is expected to be completed at the earliest this summer. If passed, the current plan is to run in fall 2006 a pilot program of the new system wherein 1,200 to 1,500 colleges and universities will enter information into IPEDS both the current way and in the new unit record manner.

The stated purpose of the change is to calculate more accurate graduation rates by tracking students individually, in effect giving schools credit for the students who leave one college but go on to graduate from another institution. The new system would also allow the Department of Education to calculate the net cost of education, the figure after all financial aid grants are taken into account, as compared to the advertised "sticker price."

Cathy Lebo, director of institutional research at Johns Hopkins, said that the technical challenges and cost to implement and maintain this type of data collection will be significant to Johns Hopkins due to the university's decentralized nature; timing that coincides with the implementation of ISIS, the new student information system; and the proposed reliance of Social Security numbers as identifiers. The student records and registration component of ISIS is scheduled to be implemented in summer 2006.

The unit record proposal constitutes a broad request to collect data with inherent dangers to individual privacy, Lebo said. How long will the data be kept? Who will have access to it? And will the current legal protection that safeguards student privacy, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, need to be radically changed in order for any legislation to be passed?

"They are really asking for the right to collect data on every student in the higher education system," Lebo said. "Every time there has been a federal request for information, it has been much more limited than this. There has been a specific intent and a narrow limit on exactly what they were allowed to collect and what they would use it for. But now what the government wants is an unfettered right to play with the data. That raises a lot of questions for us — whether those with access to the information will understand the nuances of the data, whether anyone should have carte blanche to collect this sort of information and what input into the conversation the institutions themselves will have about how the data is used."

Lebo said there would also be the potential to get inaccurate interpretations of the data given that there is no uniformity among higher education institutions in terms of duration of academic programs, requirements for graduation and other variables.

For example, the government will calculate one graduation rate for all full-time undergraduate students at Johns Hopkins, she said, despite the fact that Arts and Sciences, Engineering and Peabody offer traditional four-year programs while Nursing offers a two-year upper-division baccalaureate program. Similarly, the engineering curriculum is four years at Johns Hopkins but may be five years at other universities.

"How is the federal government going to roll up one answer for Johns Hopkins and understand it? The government is already dealing with 6,000-plus institutions that receive Title IV financial aid, and they don't want to expand this number by taking into account the eight academic divisions at JHU," she said. "Also, will Nursing students be treated as transfer students and another school given credit for their graduation at Hopkins? The unit record proposal also broadens the scope of data collection to include graduate students. How will start and stop points be defined to measure the time to degree for graduate programs?"

The proposal was brought up this past summer, Lebo said, and in October and November technical review panels were held to allow universities, state higher education officials and education associations to comment on the proposed new system. Lebo attended the second technical review panel along with representatives from other major public and private research universities.

Lebo said that to implement this new system would likely cost Johns Hopkins millions of dollars and that a new data warehouse would have to be created specifically for this project.

"We would be switching from a report that happens one time a year to multiple reports for every academic term during the year," she said. "Every time a student changes status, we would have to send a new record. A lot of data would have to be shipped back and forth, and we would have to reconcile all the records that did not match with the federal database. They are asking us to build a live transactional system rather than taking a single snapshot of enrollment as they do now. It will require five to eight times the work that we are doing now in reporting."

Costs and technical issues aside, the main concern for universities is the privacy issue, Lebo said.

"The fact that the government will keep all this data on students, even those who receive no aid at all, is troubling. Just by virtue of going to college your information will go into the database, and they will know a lot about you. And will they release that information to other government agencies?" Lebo questioned. "People are going to say this is about accountability, but that is not the issue here. The issue here is, Is it worth the cost to collect this answer regarding a school's performance, and will we know why the answer we get is either good or bad? If two schools with students of very different academic abilities have exactly the same graduation rates, then which school is doing the better job? After a great deal of effort and expense, we will know that one school had a better graduation rate than another, but we will not know why. The money used to implement this will have to come from somewhere, and, in the end, will it be worth it? While this proposal might be well-intentioned, there are certainly a lot of issues for us to consider."

Currently, Johns Hopkins is working with the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, the Association of American Universities and the Maryland Independent College and University Association to monitor the proposal's legislative status and to martial support to modify the proposed system by putting appropriate limits on the data requests.


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