Colleges are now using personal data like browsing history to rank applicants

Pretty caucasian high school student reading a book at classroom.
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If you're in the process of applying for college, be warned that it isn't just your grades and extracurricular activities that are being reviewed by schools. According to a report from the Washington Post, at least 44 public and private universities across the United States have started to work with third-party companies to collect and track data on prospective students, including web browsing activity and financial history. These practices could lead to schools favoring students based on financial incentives for the school, placing students from low-income backgrounds at a disadvantage.

According to the Post, the tracking process begins as soon as a student first directs their browser to a school's website. Many schools have started to implement tracking software on their sites that are able to identify a person based on other online activity. This type of software, often called a cookie, is typically associated with online advertising. When you visit a site searching for boots, for instance, and all of a sudden start seeing advertisements for boots on other sites, it's because of tracking cookies. In the case of these schools, those cookies are used to gauge a person's interest in the university. It tracks their activity, on site and off, and can use data about the person's location and interests to determine who the student is. That information is given to the admissions office to pair with existing data about the student, including their name, contact information, and additional details about their life like when they are graduating and what areas of the school they showed interest in based on activity on the site, and where the student lives.

For students getting ready to apply for college, this may come as a surprise. When asked to submit test scores for the ACT or SAT and transcripts of grades, no one from the university tells these students that things like their web browsing activity will also factor into their admissions process. Students already have their social media profiles subject to review in the admissions process, but other online activity represents a new concern. It appears to at least be one factor considered by a number of universities looking to build more complete profiles of applicants. Using that tracking data plus other information collected from applicants, schools use an algorithm that processes all of this data and produces a score called an "affinity index" that predicts their likely interest in attending the school. The higher a person's affinity index, the more resources the school is likely to spend trying to recruit that student.


On its face, this perhaps doesn't seem surprising, but it is troubling for a number of reasons. First and foremost is the fact that it twists the incentive structure for schools, which one would expect to chase the best, brightest and most interesting students — kids with academic and extracurricular interests that fit the school's offerings and may thrive on campus. The practices may raise a hidden barrier to a college education for underprivileged students. While colleges have used data for many years to decide which regions and high schools to target their recruiting, the latest tools let administrators build rich profiles on individual students and quickly determine whether they have enough family income to help the school meet revenue goals. According to the Washington Post, the tracking services have become particularly popular among schools operating on tight budgets. Finding students with high levels of interest who also live in higher income communities and come from wealthier families make for prime targets for those institutions, as the return in investment for recruiting them will likely be higher. This has led to some schools placing an increased emphasis recruiting out-of-state students who may pay a higher tuition. Those students are more likely to be consistent contributors to the school's revenue, even if they aren't the best fit at the school based solely on their academic background.

This problematic practice is rarely disclosed to students. Most of the school websites — including the likes of George Mason University, University of Pittsburgh and University of Toledo — that were discovered to have tracking cookies on them did not inform students that their information was being collected, according to the Washington Post. Just three of 33 sites reviewed explicitly stated that their website hosts tracking software. The other 30 lacked any disclosure of tracking practices or failed to fully explain the extent of the tracking being done and how it might factor in to a student's application process. Schools have also reportedly skirted rules that prevent them from sharing student information with third parties by classifying consulting companies as "school officials." That gives the schools the ability to share personal data used to craft the student profiles and build the "affinity index" scores. While students do effectively consent to having their information shared with school officials, they are likely unaware that in some cases, those officials are third-party data collection and processing firms that the school is working with to build detailed profiles that will determine their admissions status.

Low-income students already face an uphill battle when it comes to higher education. Costs associated with standardized testing, applications fees create a barrier to entry in the first place, and that is before those students are hit with a steep bill for tuition each semester. Those bills, along with a lack of access to necessary resources to succeed and systematic failures that plague low-income communities like less funding for public schools — which produce worse education outcomes for — put some students at a disadvantage and makes it more challenging to complete their education. Now schools are putting those same students at a disadvantage before they even have the chance to submit their transcripts.