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Social Security number getting kicked off campus
Scripps Howard Foundation Wire


July 23, 2006

There was a time when American college students had a better shot at collecting a crop of Social Security numbers than making an A on their next test. Many schools generously placed the numbers on class rolls and ID cards, and professors used partial numbers when they posted grades on classroom doors.




That was roughly four years ago, when half of the country's colleges used the nine-digit tracker for the social-welfare program as students' default identification numbers.

Most universities have all but eliminated the use of Social Security numbers on campus. Others are making the switch.

"It would absolutely stun me that any institution is using the Social Security number as the main identifier today," said Barnak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. "Frankly, it's not even so much a choice anymore."

The number was once a convenient - and more protected - method of identifying students when universities' recordkeeping was bound to pen and paper, Nassirian said. Universities had to keep track of the number to monitor income for financial aid.

But now that recordkeeping has been computerized and academic departments are strung together by shared school networks, "Lots more people can potentially have access," Nassirian said.

Identity theft is not the only worry. University administrators have pulled Social Security numbers off ID cards, or assigned new numbers to avoid consequences under recent interpretations of the federal Family and Educational Rights Protection Act of 1974, Nassirian said. Social Security numbers are considered academic records under the act, which limits their display or release.

Even as universities adopt new ID plans, some have had Social Security numbers slip out.

At the University of Alabama, the change came after more than 4,000 fraudulent votes were cast in a March 2003 student election using a dated record of student Social Security numbers and birth dates.

In April, a University of South Carolina professor accidentally e-mailed a file with more than 1,200 students' Social Security numbers and other personal information. Similarly, as many as 6,500 University of Kentucky students and alumni's Social Security numbers could have been exposed when a flash drive - a detachable, miniature computer hard drive - loaded with years' worth of grades was stolen from a classroom in May.

For many schools, however, the change comes without the threat of mass identity theft, such as George Washington University in Washington, which changed to a new, eight-digit alphanumeric ID system in February.

"We want to be ahead of the curve, not behind the curve," said Alexa Kim, GWU executive director of technology services.


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