Hiding Behind the Right to Privacy

Suppose you’re a wealthy investor, and an enterprising businessman comes to you requesting a billion dollar investment in his company. He promises an incredible ROI. Your interest is piqued, so you ask him for some data to justify such a large investment. “No can do,” he says. “That information is private.”

Of course, you’d laugh him out of the room.

However, this is exactly the story of American higher education. The federal government funnels hundreds of billions of dollars into the academy through Pell Grants, subsidized loans, and all sorts of other aid. In theory, this is an investment in our nation’s future, so you would think the government might ask for some hard data on various student outcomes.

But it doesn’t. In 2008, under pressure from the higher-ed lobby, Congress passed a law banning the creation of a federal student unit record system that would enable existing data systems to share information.

This was done in the name of “privacy,” a position Professor Bernard Fryshmandefends in Inside Higher Ed. According to Fryshman:

College has always been a time for growth, for experimentation, for change. Young people could make false starts knowing that they could always start fresh. Few people were watching and even fewer recording. …

Given the massive amount of cash the government pumps into higher education, it ought to be less concerned with hiding students’ “false starts” and more focused on preventing them in the first place. It is these “false starts” that often lead to dismal graduation rates, mounds of student debt, and rampant underemployment. And the best way to help students is to increase accountability and give them more information before they begin their college careers.

It is hard not to see these vigorous defenses of student privacy as little more than veneers protecting institutional privacy–the kind of privacy that shields derelict colleges and universities from accountability.

The well-being of America’s college students is serious business. It’s time the higher-ed lobby gave up its cynical arguments against accountability and started putting students’ interests above its own.


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