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Education Reporter

Federal Government Plans Student Database
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The U.S. Department of Education plans to consolidate nine separate databases into one giant database of grant, contract, and student loan recipients. The Department of Education would have to waive certain privacy rules in order to allow the database, which would contain personally identifiable information, to exist. The personally identifiable information would include Social Security numbers, birth dates, and possibly financial information about students and their families.

The proposal comes from the ED's Office of Inspector General (OIG), the office that audits and investigates various educational programs. OIG believes the enormous database would help to combat fraud and abuse of federal student loan programs and other grant programs. There is some evidence to suggest that such fraud is rampant, but advocates of universities and students are arguing that the database is not the right way to solve this problem.

"We are . . . quite alarmed by the scale and scope of data collection proposed in [the database], by OIG's apparent belief that it has an unfettered right to engage in data mining on records of individuals who have had any interaction with the department, and worse still, OIG's apparent belief that it may disclose individually identifiable information from [the database] to various outside entities, including foreign agencies and private organizations, without the consent of the individual," the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers wrote to OIG in mid-November. That association wrote on its own behalf and on behalf of seven other associations of colleges and students.

OIG has named an alarming list of people whose personal information would appear in the database: "Employees of the Department; consultants; contractors; grantees; advisory committee members or others who have received funds from the Department for performing services; students who have applied for Federal student financial assistance; Pell Grant recipients; borrowers of William D. Ford Federal Direct Loans, Federal Family Education loans, Federal Insured Student loans or Federal Perkins loans; owners, board members, officials, or authorized agents of postsecondary institutions; and individuals applying to the Department's Office of Federal Student Aid for a personal identification number."

The eight associations protesting the database say that OIG's plan would "allow massive amounts of irrelevant, unnecessary, and erroneous information about U.S. citizens to be secretly compiled" in a central location. "We do not believe that the Inspector General Act of 1978, as amended, was ever intended by Congress to allow the creation of a Big Brother-like surveillance system by any IG, to permit any IG to set itself up as a data mart of information on U.S. citizens for domestic and foreign law enforcement agencies, or to authorize any IG to provide background checks and degree verification on U.S. citizens to private entities, with or without their permission," write the associations.

"It's troublesome enough that they are seeking to collect this extraordinary amount of information to use for themselves," said Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of one of the associations. "But then they take this enormous leap from having the right to access such for themselves to having the right to disclose data on a very loosey-goosey basis, to virtually every Tom, Dick and Harry that strikes their fancy."

The college groups made it clear that they oppose fraud and abuse of federal programs, and that they support the OIG in its mission to prevent and punish such abuses, even though they oppose the creation of ever-larger databases of private information. (Inside Higher Ed, 11-19-08)

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