The World Increasingly Relies on Big Data. Colleges Do, Too

November 22, 2019

When a prospective student reads about Drew for the first time, it’s often on the school’s website. The sleek, freshly designed home page directs enthusiastic high school juniors and seniors to a variety of stories about Drew, information about financial aid packages and school traditions.

Users rarely realize what’s going on in the background—colleges are increasingly collecting data on how students use their websites, from what pages they click on to how long they view sections such as events and financial aid, through the use of tracking cookies.

 

As first reported by the Washington Post, Drew has contracted Capture Higher Ed, a Louisville, Ky. based admissions consulting firm that specializes in “behavioral engagement, predictive modeling and student outreach.” The company has been known for using student data to construct profiles of prospective students with the purpose of determining the likelihood of accepting an admissions offer or financial aid package.

 

PHOTOS COURTESY OF SHUTTERSTOCK AND DREW UNIVERSITY. GRAPHIC COURTESY OF RYMAN CURTIS.

 

While Drew did not respond to repeated requests for comment from the Post, in a statement to the Acorn, interim Executive Director of Communications and Marketing, Kristen Williams said that “as an enrollment partner for Drew, Capture Higher Ed works with us to identify prospective students and better communicate our marketing and admissions–related messages to them,” which is done partially via social media and pop-up ads. 

 

According to the Post’s investigation, Capture’s cookies initially track site visitors by IP address, yet Drew’s website privacy policy states that “no personally identifiable information is aggregated or shared.” While Williams says that internally IP addresses are not used except to access other devices on the network, due to the university not defining IP addresses as personally identifiable information, Capture’s use of IP addresses is not addressed in the privacy policy. This definition of IP addresses as not personally identifiable is, to an extent, out of step with an increasing number of privacy laws and opinions worldwide.

 

In 2016, then-Director of the Federal Trade Commission Bureau of Consumer Protection, Jessica Rich, wrote in a memorandum that in “many cases” IP addresses should be treated as personally identifiable information, especially in the case of minors. Two years later, the European Union implemented the General Data Protection Regulation, which states that IP addresses should be considered personally identifiable information as many can be consistently used to precisely identify individuals.

 

With increasing amounts of prospective students getting information from college websites, concerns have been raised over the ability of students to avoid being tracked by their future educational institution. As use of Drew’s website automatically results in the user agreeing to Capture’s tracking tools, it is difficult for a prospective student to gain information about Drew without Drew gaining information about the student—often without the student’s knowledge. 

 

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