At colleges that are struggling to keep their doors open, administrators are using data tools to gauge prospective students’ likelihood to accept an offer of admission, and their ability to pay. The Washington Post recently investigated colleges’ relationships with predictive analytics firms that track potential applicants’ activity on college websites and combine the data with third-party information to build out individual profiles containing data on students’ ethnicity, family income, interests, distance from campus, purchasing habits, and more.
The analytics tools also often “score” each student to recommend how much effort recruiting officers should devote to them. Colleges use the systems to sort students and prioritize outreach—for instance, to students with the most interest and least need for financial aid. Critics say this unregulated system may disadvantage low-income students and those with lower technological literacy.
Through its reporting, The Post found 44 colleges that have contracted with outside firms such as Capture Higher Ed and Ruffalo Noel Levitz for tracking and analysis services. Lloyd Thacker, a former admissions counselor and founder of the nonprofit research group Education Conservancy, says financial struggles are forcing college administrators to shift their priorities. “An admission dean is more and more a businessperson charged with bringing in revenue,” Thacker said. “The more fearful they are about survival, the more willing they are to embrace new strategies.”
For example, Mississippi State University incorporates socioeconomic data into its admissions algorithm to target outreach to more out-of-state students with higher family incomes. Forty-two percent of Mississippi State’s freshmen hailed from out of state in 2018, up from 26 percent in 2008.
“From a practical standpoint… you would want to know if folks have an ability to pay,” said John Dickerson, the university’s assistant vice president for enrollment. Mississippi State says it does not use financial information to make admissions decisions, but The Post notes that even “focusing recruiting resources on higher-income students means lower-income students may receive less encouragement to apply for college.”
Some experts are also voicing privacy concerns, with Zachary Greenberg, a program officer at the student advocacy group Foundation for Individual Rights in Education asserting that “students deserve to know where their information is going.” Capture Higher Ed spokesman Jim Davidson, however, said students can opt in to receive information from schools that use the service, and can opt out of tracking by contacting the school. Others say that students with privacy concerns can choose not to engage with college websites.
But that argument assumes that all prospective students have a certain level of technological literacy and that schools are transparent about their online tracking. The Post found that, of 33 schools using web tracking software, only three disclosed the purpose of the tracking to students.
Some proponents of predictive analytics, meanwhile, highlight their potential to call attention to nontraditional prospects who could have otherwise gone overlooked. George Mason University uses such systems to encourage nontraditional students, parents, and first-generation students to apply. Other institutions are using student profiles to help overextended recruiters craft more personal pitches.
“An admissions counselor may only have an hour in a given day to make contact with prospective students,” said Chrissy Holliday, vice president of enrollment at Colorado State University at Pueblo, a Capture Higher Ed client. “The Web data allows the counselor to know which students are currently most engaged and might benefit most from that contact.” Still, when the system seeks out students with high digital engagement, it implicitly penalizes those who have limited internet access, who do not own a smartphone, or who may not have a computer at home.