Student Unit Record Databases: Ethical Implications and Considerations


A case that discusses data management and human subjects research. In this case, researchers are looking to store data from students in a centralized records system and wonder if they need to consult an institutional review board before moving forward. 


Part 1

As a senior scholar in the field of higher education, Dr. Schonfeld conducts most of her research using statewide student unit record (SUR) systems databases. SUR systems contain information about individual students, as opposed to data aggregated at the university or college level. Such information may include financial aid status, progress toward degree, cumulative grade point average, or race and ethnicity, as a few examples. The use of SUR systems has significantly helped to advance empirical and theoretical understandings of major issues in the field. As one example, researchers and legislators are increasingly interested in whether historically underrepresented groups, such as African-Americans, attain degrees at rates equal to those of White students. Data on individual students allow researchers to better explore this question.

Dr. Schonfeld has been watching closely the emerging debate about the creation of student unit record (SUR) systems by state consortia and the national government. SUR systems contain information about individual students, as opposed to aggregate data, for example, at the institutional level. Dr. Schonfeld’s own state has just entered into a consortium of states developing a regional database to track students individually across state lines as they move through systems of higher education.

Although the data that would be stored in the proposed regional SUR database have been collected by institutions as well as states for years for such things as course registration and financial aid distribution as two examples, the prospect of further centralizing student information has ignited a firestorm of debate. Some are concerned, for example, that it is not appropriate to use student data — originally collected for institutional purposes — for research without informed student consent. Students have no option of opting out of the institutional databases because they are a necessity for institutional operations. Dr. Schonfeld has been asked to serve as one member of a university-wide committee to advise the chancellor about whether the university should join the consortium.


  1. Should student consent be obtained before student data are entered into the institutional databases? What are the pros and cons of seeking consent? Should student consent be obtained before data from institutional operations are used in research databases?
  2. Is there a conflict of interest in Dr. Schonfeld serving on the committee given her potential use of such databases for her own research?
  3. What are the ethical implications of creating and maintaining such a database?
  4. Even if data can be made completely secure, for example through encryption technologies, what are the ethical implications of using data collected through institutional operations for research?
  5. What are the implications if database security is compromised and data are stolen?
  6. Do scholars who use databases like the one discussed in this case have an obligation to discuss the ethics involved?

Part 2

Again and again, debate within the committee returns to a key question: How might the data be used and what are the potential impacts upon students? Conclusions drawn from research on topics like financial aid may have real and disparate consequences for groups of students. For example, what if the data suggest low-income students are not more likely to graduate whether they are given financial aid or not, resulting in policy makers reducing the amount of need-based aid to low-income students?


  1. Should researchers using such databases seek human subjects approval from institutional review boards?
  2. What responsibility, if any, do researchers have to share findings with groups who may be negatively impacted by research conclusions? What responsibility do researchers have, if any, to share findings with groups who may benefit from research conclusions?
  3. Should Dr. Schonfeld recommend to the committee that a regional SUR database be created? Should Dr. Schonfeld recommend any protocols in research uses of such data, for example, seeking informed consent? Would such protocols be possible?
  4. Who should have access to these data?
. . Student Unit Record Databases: Ethical Implications and Considerations. Online Ethics Center. DOI:

The Belmont Report (1979) provides a useful framework for analyzing the human subjects aspects of this case and for revealing the ethical limitations of the human subjects framework itself.  That report suggests three principles for researchers’ obligations to human subjects — respect for persons, beneficence, and justice.  Respect for persons is the basis of the concern about informed consent raised explicitly in this case.  The moral theory, in turn, on which this principle is founded is one of Kant’s (1785/1985) formulations of his Categorical Imperative — that people should be treated as ends and not only as means.  In this case, the students who have provided the information included in the student unit record (SUR) have received a variety of benefits by providing that information — consideration for student financial aid, maintenance of a transcript of their academic achievement, and so on.  Thus, students have not been treated only as means to research because they have also received desired benefits from the provision of information.  The remaining problem, however, is that the students have not consented to the use of that the information to conduct research.  This problem could be met for new students by giving them written notice at the time of their enrollment that the benefits that they gain thereby are conditional on their agreeing to allow their information to be used for research and perhaps having them sign a statement to that effect.  However, this procedure does not work for past students.  Nevertheless, that their enrollment was indeed voluntary and that they have received benefits from it attenuate the ethical concern that arises from the research use of the information of these past students.  The principle of respect for persons does allow research on those who have diminished autonomy, as these past students might be classified, as long as their interests are protected.  Some of the interests of these students have indeed been protected as long as promise of past and future benefits is honored—as long, for example, as courses were delivered, earned degrees were granted, and transcripts continue to be available for the students to send to future universities and employers.  However, there is one interest of past and current students — their interest in the privacy of their records — that needs to be considered and that will be discussed below.

The research using SUR databases aims to improve our understanding of the effects of various policies and practices on the decisions and performance of college students generally and of particular segments of the college student population.  If acted upon by university and public policy makers, it therefore has the potential to render the higher education system in this country more effective and efficient.  However, these potential benefits accrue to the entire citizenry, not only to the students whose information is used in that research.  The principle of beneficence requires that the research maximize the benefits and minimize the risks to the research population.  While it is true that such research may be used to adjust various policies in the future, it usually takes a sufficiently long time to conduct that it is unlikely to have such effects during the four or five years that students are enrolled in college.  Thus, the policy effects that such research may have for future students are not likely to develop quickly enough to have consequences for currently enrolled students.  It is difficult to see how such research has any short-term benefits or costs for students although it may have the previously mentioned long-term benefits for the students simply as members of the general citizenry.  One additional consideration in the analysis of the beneficence of such research should focus on whether there are any long-term risks to individual students of the development of SUR databases.  One possible risk, mentioned in the questions, is the risk of unauthorized third parties coming into possession of individually identifiable information.  However, the validity of the research itself does not depend on the data being personally identifiable.  Thus, these risks can be minimized by following standard procedures for maintaining the confidentiality of information — stripping each student record of individually identifying information in the publicly available database and, if personally identifiable information is necessary to allow tracking of students between institutions, maintaining that information in non-networked and secure locations.  Thus, the requirements of beneficence in this case seem to be limited to such information security measures.

The final principle is that of justice, which in The Belmont Report implies that the risks of the research are not to be borne by a vulnerable or disadvantaged population, especially if the benefits of the research accrue to an advantaged population.  Because SUR databases include the records of all students, research on them does not single out any such population.  Furthermore, because students are a relatively advantaged population by almost any measure, any risks attached to research using SUR databases do not seem to be disproportionately imposed on a socially disadvantaged group.  Thus, the principle of justice in this case seems not to be relevant to the analysis.

However, there are important ethical issues raised in this case that are not captured in an analysis of human subjects considerations — for example, should we allow the government to maintain and use such a database of highly personal information on such a substantial part of the population?  Such issues require considerations of political morality that occur well outside the boundaries of the analysis above and well beyond the purview of Institutional Review Boards.  It is therefore important to remember that our ethical responsibilities as researchers are not limited to the humane treatment of the participants in our research.


Kant, Immanuel. 1785/1985. Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, trans. L.W. Beck.  New York: Macmillan.

National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research. 1979. The Belmont Report: Ethical Principles and Guidelines for the Protection of Human Subjects of Research.  Washington, DC: Department of Health, Education, and Welfare.

A critical ethical concern in this case is the issue of informed consent by students. From the time a student contacts a university or college to express interest in applying to the moment a student departs (either as a graduate, a transfer, or a drop out), a variety of data are collected about the student. These data, such as financial aid status, academic progress, and application material, are necessary for the business of the institution. They can be used by the institution for any operational purposes or internal program evaluation without student consent. However, the use of these operational data for secondary purposes (that is, purposes other than those originally intended during collection) raises many questions about how to treat informed consent on the part of students.

Obtaining informed consent from the hundreds of thousands of students whose information would be contained in databases similar to those proposed in this case presents considerable challenges. For example, the monetary costs associated with contacting each student and explaining the proposed research to be conducted would be prohibitive. In addition, because personal identifiers are often completely stripped from the databases, it may in fact be impossible to contact individual students for their consent. These obstacles make it even more incumbent upon researchers to consider the ethical issues raised in using these data.

The question of developing and maintaining comprehensive student unit records is complex. On the one hand, legislators, taxpayers, parents, and students increasingly demand accountability from institutions of higher education. For example, legislators want to know if taxpayer money is being spent effectively to educate citizens. Student unit records enable institutions to answer such questions more precisely as well as more broadly. The finer the level of detail stored in research databases, the more precisely questions about effective education can be answered.

On the other hand, student unit record databases are not a panacea. They cannot answer all questions raised by the constituents of higher education in a definitive manner. The nature of the educational enterprise is so complex (think about all the factors than can influence whether a student graduates and in what length of time) and so varied that it is almost certain that disagreement about what constitutes an effective education will be around as long as there are institutions of higher education. Given this reality, the potential costs and consequences of a student unit record database must be seriously considered. To illustrate ways in which SUR systems impact the lived experiences of students, it may be helpful to briefly consider a current and sometimes contentious debate within the higher education community.

Equal opportunity to pursue higher education — particularly for low-income and historically underrepresented groups — is a major concern for policy makers and researchers in education. A considerable body of literature exists exploring the pathways students take to college, the factors that influence opportunity to attend, and the variables that impact whether students are successful in their educational pursuits. Within this debate, the impact of financial aid and academic preparation are two key areas of exploration. Student unit record databases have enabled researchers to examine the effects of high school curriculum on college enrollment. Likewise, the effects of financial aid have been closely examined using SURs. One school of thought argues that academic preparation has the greatest influence on college enrollment. Another school of thought agrees that academic preparation is important, but alone is insufficient to ensure college qualified students enroll. Rather, meeting financial need — particularly for low-income students — is equally important. As policy makers have increasingly focused on academic preparation in high school as the key factor in college enrollment, low-income, college qualified students are losing the opportunity to attend college because of unmet financial need (St. John & Parsons, 2003).

Regardless of the school of thought with which one agrees, data collected for administrative purposes by institutions is used in the research both sides use to support their arguments—all without informed student consent. In addition, policy makers may leverage particular aspects of this research base to support ideological arguments that may or may not be in the best interests of particular students. For example, focusing on academic preparation to the exclusion of financial aid may disproportionately impact students of color. With decreasing public support of education and increasing demand, the equal education opportunity stakes are high. Research often plays a crucial role in shifting or buttressing terms of the debate.

In addition to potential policy effects of SUR based research, security comprises another area of ethical consideration. Although technological advances enable increasingly secure storage and transmission of private data, recent high visibility data theft at institutions of higher education (Northwestern University, California State University at Chico, Boston College, University of California at Berkeley, to name a few) illustrate the potential for abuse of large student unit record systems (Carnevale, 2005).

In conclusion, researchers, policy makers, and administrators who currently use or are part of the creation of student unit record systems must weigh the potential costs and benefits of such a system. If possible, students themselves should be involved at some level of the discussion. The ethical implications of creating a database should be considered before more technical discussions about security are had. In short, the “why” of student unit record systems should be addressed before the “how.” Central to the debate of SUR systems is the issue of informed consent. If informed consent cannot be obtained, researchers may want to consider other ways in which the autonomy of subjects can be respected. For example, researchers might make the effort to distribute research findings to constituent groups represented in the databases. Minimally, researchers should engage other researchers as well as policy makers in ongoing debate about how to be responsible stewards of data which was obtained without explicit consent.


St. John, E., & Parsons, M. D. 2004. Public Funding of Higher Education: Changing Contexts and Rationales. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Carnevale, D. May 6, 2005. “Why Can’t Colleges Hold On to Their Data? A string of high-profile security breaches raises questions about the safety of personal information.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, Volume 51, Issue 35, Page A35.