Thursday, October 4, 2001

Colleges Largely Complying With Requests for Information on Foreign Students, Survey Finds

The Chronicle of Higher Education

Thursday, October 4, 2001

 

By RON SOUTHWICK

 

About 200 colleges have turned over information about their foreign students to federal and local authorities investigating last month's terrorist attacks, according to a nationwide survey. Law-enforcement agencies have asked nearly half of those institutions to disclose private information, including financial records, prompting concern about potential abuses of students' rights.

 

The Federal Bureau of Investigation has contacted 144 institutions following the attacks in New York, Virginia, and

Pennsylvania, according to a survey being compiled by the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions

Officers. The survey, which is continuing, indicates that the Immigration and Naturalization Service has contacted 56 colleges.

Some institutions were contacted by both agencies, or by local police departments.

 

Colleges are volunteering information freely. Of the 200 institutions disclosing information, only 22 requests for information were accompanied by subpoenas. "The inescapable conclusion is that higher education has been fully cooperative with authorities," said Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the registrars' group.

 

Federal law normally bars colleges from releasing students' personal information without their consent. However, the law does allow exemptions during a "health and safety" emergency. The survey indicates that colleges are sharing their records, and that they are usually not notifying students when doing so.

 

Officials at 169 institutions said they did not tell students if they released their information. The survey indicated that 144 institutions were asked to provide publicly available information, such as names and addresses.

 

Mr. Nassirian said that 97 college officials indicated that they were asked to disclose private information, including the courses students were taking, their grades, and financial information about such things as bank accounts and credit cards, said Mr.

Nassirian.

 

Only eight colleges said they did not provide private information, Mr. Nassirian said, but seven of those institutions did not have any records to provide. Only one institution refused outright to turn over private records, he said.

 

Advocates for students are wondering if institutions are being too accommodating. The United States Student Association is worried that the government could infringe on privacy rights, and that it has not acted sufficiently to make sure there are no abuses of private information.

 

"I think that students throughout the country are very concerned," said Julia Beatty, president of the student association. "We're seeing an increased stripping of civil liberties."

 

The National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities does not oppose the government's conducting wider searches of students' records, including requests for financial records. But the group wants the government to establish procedures to make sure those records remain private.

 

"If you open records up on 1,000 students and three turn out to be problems, the information on the other 997 students should be destroyed," said Sarah A. Flanagan, vice president for government relations and policy at the independent colleges' group.

 

At least one of the suspected hijackers involved in the terrorist attacks had entered the country on a student visa, prompting discussion about reviewing the procedures through which foreign students can enter the country.

 

Colleges are concerned that proposed federal antiterrorist legislation now in Congress would give government officials too much power to compel colleges to turn over student records.

 

So far, 1,175 college and university officials have responded to the survey, Mr. Nassirian said. He said responses were still arriving.

 

Law-enforcement agencies have asked 34 institutions for records of all students -- foreign and American -- who are enrolled in specific academic programs, usually in aviation, Mr. Nassirian said.

 

Copyright 2001 by The Chronicle of Higher Education