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Some students’ private data may not be so private

University of Miami students’ private information may have been made available to loan lender giants such as Sallie Mae, the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times first reported in September.

Yet it is not the students who are consenting to the release of their own information-it is the University of Miami making that decision.

According to the U.S. Department of Education Web site, 14 million students fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, the general form to determine whether an individual is eligible to receive funding from the government or private lenders.

If a student is eligible for financial aid, his or her school of choice may then inform the student of lender options. Student information, such as names, addresses, phone numbers and Social Security numbers, is meant to be kept confidential; only the school and the U.S. Department of Education have access to it.

The Department of Education confirmed that submitting the FAFSA does not grant schools the right to release personal information of students without consent.

However, last summer, Rachael Hall, a sophomore studying environmental engineering, received multiple letters in the mail from private lender Sallie Mae containing a loan application she had not requested. To her surprise, her private information was already filled in for her.

“I filled out the FAFSA,” Hall said. “Then I began to get a lot of letters from loan companies and kept having to throw them away. It was a waste of paper and just got annoying. But this has to do with privacy. My information should not be given out if I don’t agree to it.”

Hall is not alone. According to a Sept. 27 article in the St. Petersburg Times, several UM students received these letters and e-mails, steering them to apply for loans from Sallie Mae.

“There’s so much identity theft these days,” Tori Kichler, a junior, said. “I don’t want my Social Security number getting in the wrong hands because of something I didn’t do.”

Still, Provost Thomas LeBlanc said the university “respects and protects the privacy of the students, and ensures the confidentiality of student records and personal information.”

“The FAFSA is the application for federal student aid, and successful processing of the form qualifies a student for federal student loans,” LeBlanc said, in an e-mail to The Miami Hurricane. “The university then offers the student loan as an option in the financial aid package. No student is required to accept a student loan.”

But in an interview with The Miami Hurricane in September, the university confirmed that they had sent the personal data of students to private lender Sallie Mae, even though these students had not authorized them to do so.

James Bauer, UM’s financial aid director, told The Hurricane that the FAFSA is an application for a loan, giving the school permission to disclose students’ personal data.

“In the school’s view, students did apply for a loan when they filled out the standard form all students submit to establish eligibility,” Bauer said.

While the university’s financial aid department defined the FAFSA as a loan application, one of UM’s “sister schools” sees the FAFSA along the same lines as the federal government.

“The FAFSA is not a loan application; it is a common form to determine a student’s eligibility for financial aid,” John Beckman, director of Financial Aid at New York University, told The Hurricane in an e-mail. “The form can help determine if a student is eligible for a federal loan.

“Whether or not the student chooses to avail his or herself of that loan is a separate question,” he continued. “The information is not shared with private lenders.”

It is also possible that UM violated the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, said Jim Bradshaw, a Department of Education spokesperson. Congress passed FERPA in 1974 to protect the privacy of student records.

Bradshaw clarified that FERPA covers all students from the first day they begin school.

“Schools can only release ‘directory information,’ which is basic information about the student,” he said. “This does not include Social Security numbers.”

Bradshaw said it would be a breach of FERPA if the university sent the private data of students who were enrolled in school at the time. He also noted that if UM had sent the information of prospective students, they would not have broken the law because FERPA only covers students from the day they begin at the university.

After legal issues with UM’s definition of FAFSA as a loan application were raised in the St. Petersburg Times, Bauer still says the FAFSA is “an application for a loan,” and thus allows the university to transfer student information to lenders.
Students aware of UM’s release of private information are concerned with the lack of privacy.

“If the school is giving out my private information I would definitely not be happy with that,” said Erick Van Zanten, a sophomore majoring in Biomedical Engineering. “Wherever my information goes, I want to know about it.”

Chelsea Kate Isaacs may be contacted at c.isaacs1@umiami.edu. Erika Capek may be contacted at e.capek@umiami.edu.

Sallie Mae deserts efforts to retrieve students’ personal data via FOIA

Although Sallie Mae, the student lender, has had no trouble receiving students’ private information from the University of Miami, the lending giant recently abandoned efforts to force other colleges to give up students’ addresses.

Sallie Mae, the largest student loan provider in the United States, said the student contact info would provide a means to make students aware of low-cost loan options, and would be used for no other purpose.

Last month, the Bush administration decided that colleges did not have to respond to student contact data requests, even if they were made under the federal or state freedom-of-information laws. Contact information such as name, address, telephone listing, e-mail address and major field of study are only required if the college treats the information as “directory information.”

Sallie Mae’s efforts to retrieve student contact information was revealed by the New America Foundation, reported The Chronicle of Higher Education on Oct. 26.

The Chronicle also reported that Sallie Mae’s pursuits were revealed shortly after the St. Petersburg Times broke the story that the University of Miami was giving out Social Security numbers and other important information to the lending giant.

-Karyn Meshbane

October 29, 2007

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The Miami Hurricane

Student newspaper at the University of Miami


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The Miami Hurricane is the student newspaper of the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Fla. The newspaper is edited and produced by undergraduate students at UM and is published weekly in print on Tuesdays during the regular academic year.