By: Michael McNeil

Around 20 million people will apply to college this year, and when they do, colleges will be watching them. Using big data analytics software from companies like Technolutions Inc., schools will know when an applicant opens an email, how long they spend reading it, and whether they click on any attachments or hyperlinks. They will see when an applicant visits their website, what they look at, and how long they stay on each page. They will know when an applicant visits their school, calls and asks for information, or RSVP’s to an event the school is participating in. All this and more will be tracked, annotated, and measured, so that the college can assess the applicant’s “demonstrated interest” in attending their school.

Demonstrated interest is an important consideration in college admissions today because it allows schools to protect their yield rates (percentage of accepted applicants that end up enrolling at the school). All colleges want high yield rates, and the best colleges have them. However, predictable yield rates are more important because colleges can be more accurate with how many offers of admission to extend. To achieve a high level of predictability, more colleges are turning to big data analytics to determine when applicants are likely to enroll in their school if admitted. While this certainly adds utility for the colleges, most applicants are not aware of when their data is being collected, and how it is being used.

Federal law governing the privacy and use of big data is far from settled and does not specifically address big data use in the college admissions context. Currently, there is no single federal law that comprehensively addresses the legality of big data analytics. Instead, federal laws address data privacy and use in specific narrow instances, such as financial, health, or consumer related data. Some States have passed laws to protect their resident’s data in various capacities, such as the California Online Privacy Protection Act, which requires commercial websites and online services to post a privacy policy if they collect data on California residents. These entities must disclose to California residents what information is being collected, when their online visits are being tracked, and who if anyone they are sharing this data with.  This law applies to colleges around the country that track the online activities of California applicants, but does not apply to everyone else.

As the legal and technological landscape surrounding big data analytics evolves over the coming years, colleges will adapt the way they use these technologies to remain in compliance with the law. What is needed is a federal law that requires colleges to be forthcoming and transparent with disclosing the data they collect and how they use it.  In the meantime, colleges will continue to operate with little oversight or transparency regarding the data they collect and the way it informs the decisions they make. The next generation of college applicants needs to be educated on the role their demonstrated interest plays in the college admissions process. Colleges are watching, and applicants should be fully aware.

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