Student tracking software

Do you like us? Do you REALLY like us?

There’s a good chance a college or university already knows quite a bit about a student before they even send in an application – and some of the data they gather affects admissions decisions.

Colleges are watching you

College websites use cookies to track things like clicks and time spent on various pages to gauge student interest. The software they employ can send your name, contact information, and other identifying details such as ethnicity to admissions officers.

Earlier this year, The Washington Post investigated one instance of this increasingly common practice. Internal university records sent to the paper revealed that the University of Wisconsin-Stout had employed this software and – in just one example of its employment – received a file on an applicant showing that she was a graduating high school senior from Little Chute, Wisconsin, was of Mexican descent, and had applied to the university. They also received a list of 27 pages she had clicked on when she visited the UW-Stout website and how long she spent on each page. She was also assigned an “affinity index,” gauging just how likely she was to accept an offer of admission.

This type of tracking is not uncommon nor is it new. The Post reported that “at least 44 public and private universities in the United States 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.” This potential violation of student privacy is also not confined to admissions. In 2014, Harper College, a two-year community college in Illinois, employed tracking software to try to identify which students were unlikely to complete their degrees. The goal was timely intervention, but it’s not always the thought that counts when it comes to collecting this kind of data – especially when schools are not transparent about it.

Colleges justify the use of this software and their collaborations with outside consulting firms in a variety of ways. For schools with smaller endowments, they claim that identifying students who are likely to be able to pay tuition helps keep them afloat. For those with thousands of applicants, knowing who is most likely to accept an offer can save time and money.

Schools are “scoring” your interest

But when colleges assign scores to students based on income and interest, it strips applications of much of their context and it also discriminates against low-income students or those without dedicated Internet access.

To make matters worse, these actions – which can easily be seen as privacy violations – don’t have to be reported to students. It’s nearly impossible to know if and how a school is tracking you. And it might also be illegal – at least in the U.S. – though it will likely take a lawsuit to find out. Technically, colleges must disclose to students how they use and share their data according to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). Some schools have tried to get around this by dubbing the consulting companies they work with “school officials.”

Opt-out at your own risk

Most schools don’t let students opt-out of data collection, stating that they simply don’t have to visit their websites if they don’t want to be tracked. Others force students to e-mail admissions officials to formally opt-out of tracking, but one wonders how that information goes over when it comes time to make an admissions decision.

These sorts of predictive analytics have the potential to harm a prospective student’s college admission based on an algorithm that assumes high-income students with high online engagement are ideal candidates. It also encourages schools to spend the vast majority of their resources on these “ideal” students to the detriment of those who have a low “affinity index” score. 

Gaming the system

This digital privileging puts already disadvantaged students at a further disadvantage and it increases the already high anxiety level of college applicants. Then again, now that students know it’s happening, what’s stopping them from mindlessly engaging with websites to game the tracking system? And if schools are spending millions on this software only to have it be misleading in the end, wouldn’t that money have been better spent on improving their educational offerings?

Further reading:

Student tracking, secret scores: How college admissions offices rank prospects before they apply (The Washington Post, 2019)

Colleges are spying on prospective students by quietly tracking them across the internet (Quartz, 2015)

How colleges use big data to target the students they want (The Atlantic, 2017)

Community college uses student tracking software to improve completion rates (Campus Technology, 2014)

Colleges are tracking applicants’ browser history, according to new report (Mic, 2019)

Colleges and universities are tracking potential applicants when they visit their websites, including how much time they spend on financial aid pages (Business Insider, 2019)

Surveillance in selective college admissions (Inside Higher Ed, 2019)