You can officially add “college admissions website” to the list of online privacy violators, as one report has found that universities are tracking the personal information of prospective students before they even submit an application.
If you haven't been confronted by the poor state of online privacy in 2019, you mustn't be paying attention. From questionable security practices by social media platforms to consumer tech companies barely making an effort to protect your devices, digital security is currently experiencing a laughable era of unmatched ineptitude.
Now colleges across the US are taking a page out of the tech industry's playbook, utilizing these now-infamous tactics to glean data from students visiting their websites, and the extensive amount of information they track is nothing if not unsettling.
What Are Colleges Tracking?
According to a report from the Washington Post, “at least 44 public and private universities in the United States work with outside consulting companies to collect and analyze data on prospective students.” These consultants help colleges learn about everything, from basic personal information like name and contact information to personal details about their life, like financial data and athletic involvement. As for the reasons why they're tracking all this information, the phrase “data is king” doesn't just apply to the tech industry.
“They’re doing things like looking at, ‘Is this person going to our athletics page,’ because maybe that will show they are interested in a sports scholarship,” said Douglas MacMillan, business reporter for the Washington Post. “Or, ‘Is this person spending a lot of time on the financial aid website,’ because that indicates they are somebody who is going to need more financial aid when they apply to the school.”
Once all this information is tracked, some schools will even give students an “affinity index” score, which ranks them among other prospective students and gauges interest in the college.
To make matters worse, students don't have the ability to opt in or out of these data tracking practices, with most of the data collection happening when they simply visit an admissions website. Some colleges have said that students are able to opt out, but only by directly contacting the university, which is a decidedly big leap from unchecking a box in an online form.
How Have Colleges Responded?
Despite the obvious appearance of these security infractions, colleges have been quite defensive about their data collection practices, primary citing the helpfulness of the information when it comes to attracting the right kind of students to their educational organizations. Unfortunately, “the right kind of student” appears to be one that has enough money to actually go to college.
“From a practical standpoint, you would want to know if folks have an ability to pay,” said John Dickerson, assistant vice president for enrollment at Mississippi State.
In an age where the college experience is defined by the amount of debt you have when you leave, money-hungry colleges with a penchant for intrusive data collection is not a good look. Slowly but surely, the higher education industry is starting to look more and more like the tech industry. In fact, they've even coopted one of their favorite excuses for overt data tracking:
“You have a choice of not interacting at all,” said Jacquelyn Malcolm, chief information officer at the State University of New York’s Buffalo State College, to the Washington Post.
Do you really though? Malcolm cited the ability to call in to the university for more information to avoid being unnecessarily tracked or even find other websites not affiliated with the given university. However, expecting prospective college students — who are typically between the age of 17-19 — to understand these nefarious security practices is far from fair, and puts an additional obstacle in the way of young people just trying to find a way to go to school.
Is This a Uniquely American Problem?
Unfortunately, this is a decidedly American problem for a couple of reasons. For one, European universities can't partake in these kind of practices because of the Global Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), a directive from the EU last year that put significantly stricter rules on how businesses can utilize the internet. It specifically bans the collection of personal data without consent, along with a wide range of other regulations that apply to these kinds of practices. Organizations that do not adhere to these regulations can expect hefty fines from the EU, which Google can definitely attest to.
That's not the only reason this is a decidedly American problem though, as the efforts to utilize all this data to attract students has one primary motivator: money.
“An admission dean is more and more a businessperson charged with bringing in revenue. The more fearful they are about survival, the more willing they are to embrace new strategies,” said Lloyd Thacker, a former admissions counselor and founder of the Education Conservancy, to the Washington Post.
This kind of behavior points to a clear and present problem within the tech and educational systems in the US. Between the outdated internet regulations and the focus on monetary gain, these odious practices are only going to get worse as time goes on. While “regulation” is considered a bad word in some circles, the only way to ensure the digital and educational worlds remain as fair and balanced as possible is to keep all this tech in check.
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