Laura McGann uncovered the cooperative effort between the Department of Education and the FBI as part of a graduate project for Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism, The New York Times reports.
Under the program, which lasted for five years, the FBI would give the Education Department names to check against its student aid database which contains addresses, Social Security numbers, incomes and family information on millions of applicants.
According to John Miller, an assistant director of the FBI, the Education Department was asked to run only the names of subjects already considered to be material to counter-terrorism investigations.
Miller says they were looking for evidence of student loan fraud or identity theft.
"During the 9/11 investigation and continually since, much of the intelligence has indicated terrorists have exploited programs involving student visas and financial aid," says Miller. "No records of people other than those already under investigation were called for."