Admissions officers at the University of Wisconsin-Stout revealed their not well known but increasingly common practice technique to learn more about prospective students: installing tracking software on their school website.
When a student visits the site, the software automatically recognizes who they are based on a cookie it placed on their computer during a prior visit. The software sends an alert to the school’s assistant director of admissions containing the student’s name, contact information and details about her life and activities on the site. In this example, the email said this student was a senior at a Wisconsin high school who applied to UW-Stout. The email also includes a link to a private profile of the student, listing all 27 pages that she viewed on the school’s website and how long she spent on each one. A map shows her geographical location and an “affinity index” estimates her level of interest in the school. Her score was a 91/100, predicting that she is highly likely to accept an admission offer from UW-Stout.
Colleges are collecting more data about prospective students than ever before in an effort to make better predictions about which students are most likely to apply, accept an offer and enroll. The Washington Post says that at least 44 public and private universities in the US work with outside consulting companies to collect and analyze data on prospective students, by tracking their web activity or formulating predictive scores to measure each student’s likelihood of enrolling.
Scoring and tracking are popular at cash-strapped colleges who need to attract students who can afford to pay tuition. But these practices raise a hidden barrier to college education for underprivileged students. The practice of building profiles on individual students helps them quickly determine whether they have enough income to meet the school’s revenue goals.
A predictive formula may also be adjusted to favor the types of people a college wants more of, such as ethnic minorities or students of financial means. Mississippi State University, for example, uses socioeconomic data in its admissions algorithm to recruit more high-income students from outside the state because those students pay higher tuition. Administrators filter data from a large number of potential applicants down to a select pool of recruits who are a good fit for the school’s academic programs and do not need much financial aid.
The majority of universities do not tell students that the school is collecting their information. Privacy experts say colleges’ failure to disclose the full extent of how they share data with outside consultants may violate the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.
Why it’s hot: This is an interesting example of the same technologies that companies use to track users and serve them targeted ads applied to college admissions, an industry we rarely think of as relevant in this area. It’s also an important note to the school’s failure to disclose their privacy policies to potential students. But even if the universities were completely transparent, would students who choose not to allow their data to be tracked be automatically ruled out for future consideration into these schools? If so, what real choice do students have here?