A desktop computer was stolen from a Vanderbilt University professor's locked office last month, exposing the names and social security numbers of 7,174 current and former students.

University officials began warning the affected students last week and the university is offering a year's worth of credit monitoring and identity protection services to them.

The professor apparently kept a database of his grade book, including social security numbers for undergraduate and graduate students. Vanderbilt officials have subsequently advised academic deans to purge information of this type from their files and asked all professors to discontinue the practice of storing linked student names and social security numbers on their computers.

"The University sincerely regrets the inconvenience and concern this incident has caused and takes very seriously its role as steward of personal student information," university officials said in a statement. "Vanderbilt University Police Department is investigating the incident and searching for the perpetrator."

Students affected by this latest data breach at a major U.S. college or university include almost 6,000 former students, more than 1,000 current undergrads, and 174 current grad students.

Last month, more than 170,000 current and former students and faculty at Valdosta State University in Georgia had their sensitive personal information stolen when a hacker accessed a university server for several months. The server held student and staff social security numbers and grades dating back to the mid-1990s.

In the past six months, accidental or deliberate data breaches have impacted students, employees and faculty at dozens of universities including Penn State University, Montana State University, the University of Michigan, UC-Berkeley, Eastern Illinois University, Chaminade University, and the University of Alabama.

IT security experts say colleges and universities are particularly attractive to hackers because research computers have Internet access, abundant processing power and, obviously, tons of data because they're constantly conducting large-scale research projects.

Larry Barrett is a senior editor at InternetNews.com, the news service of Internet.com, the network for technology professionals.