Tag Archives: civil liberty

Condemning the NYPD over Academic Freedom?

As Mark Bauerlein observed in his seminal essay on the topic, groupthink has the effect of producing more extreme versions of the common assumption. It stands to reason, therefore, that campuses with unusually one-sided faculties will feature more frequent episodes of extremist assertions. Such certainly seems to be the case at my own institution, Brooklyn College, which too often seems eager to position itself in a kind of canary-in-the-coal mine role in higher education.

The common assumptions in this case are claims of a pervasiveness of Islamophobia in contemporary America and a belief that the U.S. government has inappropriately restricted the civil liberties of American Muslims. The extreme action came in response to an NYPD program monitoring homegrown Islamic extremism.

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How the Feds Plan to Violate Student Privacy

Though civil liberties groups have been slow to react, there’s a disturbing aspect to the Education Department’s new “gainful employment” rules pertaining to for-profit colleges: Starting in 2015, the Social Security Administration (SSA) will start turning over its data on the earnings of individual students at career colleges to the Education Department. This is so it can assess whether the students’ ratio of federal student loan debt to income complies with other gainful employment regulations issued by the department. Under the new rules, one of the metrics for deciding whether students can use federal aid (grants and loans) to attend a post-secondary vocational program is whether the average debt-to-income ratio of the school’s graduates is no higher than 12 percent (or 30 percent of the graduate’s “discretionary income” as defined by federal rules).
 
The idea behind the debt-to-income rule is to assess whether the graduates of vocational programs–including programs offered by community colleges and other nonprofit institutions as well as career colleges–are actually getting the jobs for which their training at tax-subsidized expense is supposed to be preparing them. But the SSA-Education Department arrangement–the result of an unprecedented agreement between the two federal agencies–raises serious problems related to both the privacy of the students involved and the transparency of the process of determining whether a school has failed to meet the debt-to-income threshold.
 
Most troubling is the involvement of the Social Security Administration–and also, indirectly, the Internal Revenue Service, which supplies earnings information to the SSA based on tax returns. After all, the SSA is supposed to be in the business of calculating Social Security benefits, not monitoring compliance with laws that have nothing to do with Social Security. The IRS, in turn, is supposed to be in the business of collecting taxes, including Social Security taxes, not helping the Education Department decide whether the University of Phoenix is in compliance with new gainful employment rules. Both agencies, the IRS in particular, are bound by strict laws forbidding the sharing of data except as explicitly permitted by federal statute, such as the one that allows the SSA to use IRS-supplied tax-return information along with filings by employers to determine benefits. Taxpayers have historically relied on the nearly complete confidentiality of their tax-return information as an incentive to honesty in reporting. Controversial provisions in the 2010 “Obamacare” health law that turn the IRS into an enforcement agency for compliance with the law’s individual insurance mandate have raised serious and justifiable objections. Now, thanks to an SSA-Education Department partnership that has no clear statutory authorization, both the SSA and the IRS will be complicit in an arrangement that has nothing to do with either agency’s statutory mandate.

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