ORWELLIAN?….NOT QUITE….Kevin Carey is the author of “Is Our Students Learning?” our cover story this month suggesting that we have surprisingly little information about whether our universities are actually educating anyone. Today he’s back with another guest post. Kevin says universities are now hyping bogus privacy concerns in an effort to prevent anyone from collecting the data that might hold them accountable for their performance.

From Kevin Carey: In response to a recent proposal by the Commission on the Future of Higher Education, the Department of Education wants to gather information about individual college students in order to upgrade its long-established system of reporting public data about individual colleges and universities. Individual student records wouldn’t be released to the public and the department would be able to create a whole lot of needed public information about institutional performance. That’s why I endorsed the plan in a recent Monthly article, as did the president of private Lewis & Clark College in a Washington Post op-ed published a couple of days ago.

On Friday, however, the New York Times reported that the FBI has been accessing federal student loan records as part of post-9/11 anti-terrorism investigations, adding fuel to an uncharacteristically strident and public debate in the higher education community about student privacy rights and federal data.

Critics of the proposed data system, who’ve basically called it the precursor to an Orwellian police state, jumped on the FBI program as an excuse to condemn the Education Department’s entire data gathering effort. David Warren, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities and the plan’s most high-profile critic, said that the program “confirms our worst fears about the uses to which these databases can be put.”

Two things in response.

First: Really? An anti-terrorism investigation that involves looking into whether people have or have not received students loans, data that could just as easily be gotten from for-profit student loan companies (who, as it happens, created their own private version of the proposed national student database ten years ago and have been maintaining and building it ever since): that’s your “worst fear”? If so, there’s not much to worry about here. My worst fears about data privacy involve a combination of government-controlled closed-circuit video monitors in my family room and having the intimate details of my American Express bill published on “MySpace.” But that’s just me.

Second: What this really highlights is the need for sensible, transparent law and policy when it comes to government data and privacy. Sometimes the government needs to gather and store personal information about citizens. The IRS is one example, federal student loans is another. Sometimes the government, particularly law enforcement, needs limited, confidential access to information reasonable people wouldn’t want made public, like financial records or who you called on your cell phone last week.

The best way to keep the government from overstepping those bounds ? and I’m as sensitive as anyone to the potential for abuse, particularly given the current administration ? isn’t to prevent needed data from ever being gathered in the first place. It’s to establish strong, reasonable laws around about how that data can be used, and then enforce those laws vigorously. The FBI program seems limited and targeted, the article suggests that it had already been publicly disclosed, and no one seems to think that laws have been broken. I wouldn’t want it to go any further, but that seems reasonable to me.

But the real agenda of the private colleges isn’t protecting student privacy ? it’s protecting institutional privacy, keeping information about how well they serve their students out of the public eye. When that’s your goal, any excuse to cloud a very real debate about privacy will do.