Personal Privacy in an Information Society. Post-Secondary Educational Institutions


The primary mission of post-secondary institutions is academic and vocational, and focuses on the development of intellectual and technical skills. Because most students in institutions of higher education are adults, the institution shares responsibility for their development not with parents and other social institutions, but with the students themselves. Normally, institutions of higher education do not actively seek to identify students who are potentially eligible for assistance that supplements academic training. The institution may or may not assist a student in obtaining public assistance and social services, for example, but if it does, acceptance of those services by the student is voluntary; the institution does not have custodial responsibility.

The difference in institutional mission and responsibility is the key to understanding the differences between the record-keeping practices of elementary and secondary schools and those of post-secondary schools. In post-secondary education, the minimal institutional responsibility for socialization of the student and the lack of custodial responsibility creates a simpler and more differentiated set of relationships between the institution and the individual.


The limited and narrowly focused mission of post-secondary institutions results in a more limited and clearly defined set of functions and types of decisions. The primary functions are to provide instruction, to order a student's progression through a broad but highly standardized set of instructional programs, and to provide academic counseling. In addition, most post-secondary institutions provide a range of ancillary services such as medical care, financial assistance, and housing.

The majority of post-secondary institutions draw a clear line between instructional and ancillary services. The student's academic relationship with the institution is usually clearly segregated from his financial, medical, or housing relationships. The basic decisions that relate to admission, to evaluation of academic performance, and determination of eligibility for financial aid are characterized by highly rational, comparative decision making based upon well known criteria.


The relationship between a post-secondary institution and its students is voluntary and contractual in nature. Generally, the rights and responsibilities of both are spelled out in advance. Rules of conduct, and sanctions for violations, are made known to students. Academic requirements, in terms of required courses and performance levels, are clearly defined. Admission is usually selective except in some State systems, so most institutions can use performance standards to control enrollment. Individual institutions can also control the variety of programs they offer.

Post-secondary institutions have much broader authority than do elementary and secondary institutions. Public institutions are established and regulated by State law, but generally are delegated broad authority. Private institutions are subject to some government regulation, but it does not usually affect their authority over students. Nevertheless, post-secondary institutions have in recent years increasingly shared both responsibility and authority with students. The involvement of students in governance at the departmental, college, and even university level is common, especially insofar as program planning, standard setting, and developing due process mechanisms for decision making are concerned. Colleges and universities, particularly those that are public, have permitted, and in some cases encouraged, strong student organizations to negotiate with faculty and administrators on matters of mutual interest.


There is a strong trend toward large and diversified public higher education systems with huge campuses. Some states like California have a university system in which each campus has a full array of undergraduate, graduate, and professional schools; a state college system in which each campus has a full complement of undergraduate institutions and some graduate and professional schools; and a number of community colleges. Nonetheless, there are still many private institutions, including sectarian or liberal arts colleges, with fewer than 1,000 students.

The size of student bodies in post-secondary schools can vary from a few hundred to 50,000. Some campuses are urban while others are located in communities with a smaller population than the campus. In the latter case, the community may be economically and socially dependent on the school. Some campuses have more than 100 departments offering specialized training and more than 15 quasi-autonomous schools or colleges. Some of the larger campuses have annual budgets of over $300 million and more than 10,000 employees. Most post-secondary schools have some kind of law enforcement unit or special arrangement with local law enforcement units. Some use Federal funds only for Basic Opportunity Grants for Handicapped Students; others receive up to 40 percent of their total budget from Federal agencies.

Again, however, there are certain characteristics common to all of these diverse organizational settings that affect the collection, maintenance, use, and dissemination of records about students.

  • The larger the student body, the more likely it has been for an institution to rely on records rather than on personal contact in dealing with students, particularly at the graduate levels.
  • In the last decade, post-secondary institutions have increasingly shared authority and responsibility with students.
  • While growth has led to centralization of policy and administrative support functions, academic decision making about individual students remains highly decentralized.
  • Ancillary services such as health care, psychological services, law enforcement, financial aid, and undergraduate admissions tend to be highly professional and completely separate from the academic decision processes, with independent record-keeping practices that are governed by the standards of the different professional groups involved.
  • Universities and even small colleges, tend to be cities unto themselves; not microcosms of the communities in which they are located. Hence, relationships with community agencies are the exception rather than the rule.
  • Colleges and universities, like elementary and secondary schools, are caught between demands for more services and high fixed costs. Many engage in research and public service functions, both to support their graduate and professional programs and to meet public needs. These activities often strain their budgets and dominate their attention. Almost all are under tremendous pressure from State legislatures, students or alumni to curtail rising costs.
  • Many post-secondary institutions are major employers, custodians of massive physical complexes, and major contractors for a variety of Federal agencies. As such, they must comply with Federal program requirements that tend to increase their costs, decrease management control at a time when they are pressed for management efficiency, and dominate much of their agenda. Federal requirements arising from anti-discrimination legislation, Federal procurement practices, occupational safety and environmental protection legislation, student-loan and other financial assistance programs have made post-secondary institutions wary of Federal regulation. Post-secondary institutions have also developed a tendency to concentrate on the letter rather than the spirit of Federal program requirements.


Post-secondary institutions maintain many different kinds of records about students. Some are centralized; others are created solely for the use of a department, committee, or individual faculty member. Some are conscientiously used for only one purpose; others are segregated in theory but are actually used widely for many purposes. Some are uniform in content, format, and method of collection; others differ widely in those respects. The problem for the individual in a post-secondary institution arises from the difficulty of finding out what records are being kept, by whom they are being kept, and for what purposes they are being used.

The records on students that are centralized are primarily academic records (e.g., courses, credits, grades, letters of recommendation), attendance records, and financial records. Such records seldom include much information about a student's family or social life, and only rarely include anything about a student's personality and behavior.

The centralized record about a student starts with admission. In most of the public undergraduate institutions, admissions is a fairly straightforward and simple process. The applicant supplies most of the information needed, including academic, financial, and health information, and often letters of recommendation to verify and supplement the academic record. Registrars' offices usually maintain the official academic record, which includes information regarding course work, credits earned, and grades. Health and financial records are maintained separately.

In private undergraduate institutions, and in both public and private graduate and professional schools, the admissions process generates a detailed record on the applicant, only part of which is supplied to the school by the applicant himself. Such records may include the results of faculty and staff interviews, letters of recommendation, indicators of expected performance generated from analysis of transcripts, ratings or rankings created by the admissions process, and documentation of the actions taken by admissions officers and committees with respect to the individual applicant. The admissions decisions of these institutions often allow for considerable exercise of professional judgment, unsupported by documentation. Admissions criteria often include vaguely defined attributes such as "character" and "morals."8 Although some admission decisions are made on the basis of objective information, in many cases highly subjective data on applicants is collected and used. Institutional controls on the relevance, propriety, and reliability of the information collected do not appear to exist.

Letters of recommendation, whether written at the request of the applicant or the institution, play a role in some but not all admissions decisions. While there is great variation in attitudes toward the value of letters of recommendation, the professors preparing them, and the institutions receiving them have tended to treat them as confidential communications that should not be made available to the applicant.

Universities usually set minimum record-keeping requirements for colleges and academic departments, but academic record keeping outside the registrar's office is extremely decentralized. Colleges and universities have very few restrictions or even guidelines on content, format, or method of collecting information for records kept at the department or college level. There are, moreover, few incentives for an academic department to cede any professional or departmental control over record keeping to a centralized authority within the institution. This is especially true if control impinges on activities that faculty members perceive as professional prerogatives and which, therefore, crucially affect faculty-administration relationships. Nonetheless, problems such as grade inflation suggest that the professional standards of judgment in academic performance evaluation are inconsistent, relatively weak, and often of no great interest to those making such udgments. Faculty members are not specifically trained to evaluate student performance. While standards are difficult to set, and the evaluation process will always rely heavily on professional judgment, records of evaluators normally do not include the evidence underlying the judgments they contain.

As written records tend to be substituted for the unrecorded personal knowledge of faculty and administrators, "second-order" student records have been increasingly generated. An example of such second-order records are those created by teaching assistants to enable a faculty member to operate in a system which presumes he has personal knowledge of his students, even though his class may include 400 students. Another illustration is the records created by academic supervisory committees to develop and monitor a graduate student's curriculum. Such records may or may not be official, and they often differ within colleges or even within departments of the same institution. Information in these kinds of records is, however, almost always limited to academic performance and performance evaluation. They are not used for diagnosis or specialized treatment because students in post-secondary schools are expected to make decisions about courses without the benefit of someone else's analysis of special needs.

Ancillary services can be quite elaborate in post-secondary institutions. Many university counseling centers, for example, provide psychotherapy for students, and almost all maintain student health centers staffed by physicians. Many even have hospital facilities for student use. Financial aid services, too, may be quite extensive, and may generate extensive records about students and their parents. These financial records are not commingled with other centralized records, however, and information in them is rarely disclosed or used within the university for other than financial-aid purposes.

Post-secondary institutions usually keep disciplinary records on students, and many institutions have campus security units that maintain their own records. Student records are often shared between administrators responsible for discipline and campus security forces.9 Such information does not affect academic decision making, although academic records are often used in evaluating students who have created a disciplinary problem. Nevertheless, there are few internal limits on the use of academic or disciplinary records. For example, the turbulent period of the late 1960's and early 1970's provided many examples of the ability of institutions to collect and use information about students in order to control them.10 The boundaries between academic and disciplinary decision making are sometimes more nebulous than the institutions like to admit, and in times of political stress, professional ethics are a poor substitute for legal controls over the internal uses of records.


Post-secondary institutions have almost unlimited freedom to collect and use records about students. Few proscriptions regarding the collection or use of records appear in law or university policy. The public accountability structures in both public and private institutions, while powerful, are neither sufficiently focused on administrative questions nor responsive enough to students' interests to limit record-keeping autonomy. In practice, professional standards, and the recent trend toward student involvement in university governance, do provide some limits on institutional autonomy. As noted above, however, record keeping in higher education is predominantly a professional prerogative.


In post-secondary education, there is little occasion for information to flow beyond the bounds of the educational institution. Colleges and universities have a tradition of limiting the release of information about students to external organizations, in effect holding the information in "trust" for the students. Traditionally, they have released information regarding attendance, degrees received, courses taken, and honors received, but most will not transfer records of a student's academic performance or financial situation to other institutions unless a student requests that they do so.11

Much of the current demand for information in student records comes from commercial interests developing mailing lists, or from Federal agencies conducting research, evaluating programs, or auditing financial records. For example, controversy arose recently over the use of student information by the Veterans Administration (VA) in auditing VA student-aid programs administered by institutions of higher education. The VA auditors compare records of students who do not receive its funds with the records of students who do, and inspect student records without the consent of the students involved.12 In at least one reported instance, records on students were physically removed from a school to another location where they were inaccessible to students.13 Still, research using information in records on students in individually identifiable form in higher education is not extensive. In addition, while institutions may permit such use without the consent of the individual under certain circumstances, universities are usually quick to demand guarantees of confidentiality from the researchers. 14

The most sensitive disclosures made by post-secondary institutions are to law enforcement authorities. In the recent past, a number of universities have collaborated with law enforcement and intelligence agencies to generate and share information on the political activities of student radicals. Many post-secondary institutions depend on local law enforcement agencies for campus security and may share information with these agencies. This sharing occurs most often in institutions that have campus security units. These units, usually staffed by law enforcement professionals, are more likely to follow the professional law enforcement norm of widespread sharing of information with other law enforcement authorities than the norm of strict confidentiality generally followed by educational, institutions. The information shared is often trivial-for example, the fine for a parking ticket given by a campus policeman may have to be paid to the local city government at the latter's offices, an arrangement which entails a record transfer of minimal import. In other situations, such as in cases involving drug traffic, major thefts, or threats of violence, the information shared may be much more extensive and consequential.


The Commission's inquiry led it to the following general conclusions with respect to the records post-secondary institutions generate about students.

  • While the interests of educational institutions tend to over-shadow the interests of students in the collection, use, and dissemination of education records, the more balanced relationship between the post-secondary institution and the student tends to restrict the areas of potential harm to the student that can result from record-keeping practices.
  • It is in those areas that have the greatest impact on a student's career, namely in academic performance evaluation and admission to graduate or professional school, that abuses are most likely to arise. It is in these decisions that judgment weighs most heavily, that the basis for decisions can be hard to identify, and that faculty prerogatives are strongest. Thus, a student may perceive that any effort to assert his interest in a record about himself may jeopardize his chances of a favorable evaluation.