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Confidentiality of individual student financial data protected

by Karen A. Grava - April 2, 2007

The attorney general has resolved a dispute between the University and other colleges in the state and the Department of Higher Education (DHE) about supplying personal financial information to the DHE.

Attorney General Richard Blumenthal agreed with UConn and the other units of public and private higher education in the state, saying that they do not have to supply personal financial information about students and their families to the DHE.

The information, including students’ social security numbers, was requested of all the units of higher education (UConn, the four institutions in the Connecticut State University system, the community colleges, Charter Oak College, and the private colleges), by the DHE, as part of a review to ensure that statewide financial aid policies and goals were being fulfilled.

President Philip E. Austin, and the presidents of the other constitutuent units, told the DHE that “fulfilling the request in the specific manner requested might jeopardize student confidentiality and will certainly create severe administrative burdens to Connecticut’s public colleges and universities.”

The issue came down to a question of providing DHE with access to all individual student data, including family financial data, or protecting the confidentiality of family financial data, when the DHE’s stated objectives could be achieved without the release of such data. Families expect confidentiality when filling out the financial aid forms, Austin said.

Aggregate data can be provided, he said. “The issue is not whether the Department of Higher Education should have access to information that will assist in determining whether state goals are being met.

It is, rather, how best to provide the kind of information that will help the department fulfill its task in the most effective, efficient manner possible, while maintaining strong safeguards for the privacy of individual student information.”

Federal law prohibits the University from disclosing specific information about students, other than directory information.

Blumenthal said release of the information to the DHE would require legislative clarification, especially because of increasing concern for the protection of personal financial information.

“Because social security numbers are the keys to all confidential information, it must be presumed that any information containing any portion of a student’s social security number is personally identifying,” he said.

“The constituent units are rightfully concerned about the security issues attendant to the release of personally identifiable confidential information. Without the specific statutory authorization to obtain personally identifiable confidential information, such personally identifiable confidential information may not have been deemed by the Legislature to be ‘necessary’ for the board ‘to carry out its responsibilities.’”

Austin said the University is happy to provide aggregate student information to the DHE, and that it has exceeded the state’s mandate to devote 15 percent of tuition revenue to financial aid.

“We are devoting primary assistance to Connecticut residents who are from low- and middle-income families. Of equal note, students from underrepresented groups are being assisted at disproportionately high rates. In addition to state funding, our neediest students have the benefit of federal and institutional grant aid to assist them in meeting their education expenses,” he said.

“It continues to be the goal of the University of Connecticut to meet the direct educational expenses of our neediest students.”

Although state and federal support for needy students has remained fairly level, Austin noted that UConn-funded tuition support for student aid grew from $27.6 to $41.3 million from 2001 to 2006.

In a letter, Austin told higher education commissioner Valerie Lewis that UConn is committed “to working with you to ensure that Connecticut financial aid grant programs meet state goals and to advocating for increased state funding for students in need.”

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