Is your online activity affecting your chances to get into college?

While you might not have paid much attention, you might have heard something in the past couple of years about some scandal involving Facebook and a company called Cambridge Analytica. The basic problem was that Cambridge Analytica supposedly violated Facebook user’s provacy rights in order to sell political ads.

Did you know, however, that this is very commonplace? Anywhere you share your data, such as social media, and even most websites you visit, can track your activity — and then this information can be sold to third parties who want to know more about you. Even colleges use this data!

We interviewed Joe Korfmacher, Director of Collegewise, to find out exactly how colleges track students and what this can mean for students when they apply to these schools for admission.

How are colleges tracking students?

It’s important to know that colleges have long tracked potential applicants. Whether by having families complete paper registration forms at college campus tours, or taking note of email correspondence between admissions counselor and applicant, tracking applicants has been happening for a long time in college admissions. Also, the two testing agencies for college admissions, College Board (SAT) and the ACT have long sold student data to colleges.

However, as technology improves, so does the way in which many colleges use this technology to track students. While the ‘older’ forms of tracking still exist, many colleges now also use various CRM (Customer Relationship Management) systems to track student data and communicate with students throughout the admissions process. For example, the school’s website might utilize ‘cookies’ to gather and store information from the IP address of the person browsing the site, and add that information to the student’s name and email they receive when the student completes an ‘applicant registration’ form to sign-up for information or college tours. With the student’s name, email address, and IP address, the college has all they need to track and communicate with the student.

Is there any specific piece of technology they are using which you can name?

While there are many CRM’s that colleges use, some of the most common are: UCapture, Slate, Salesforce, and Ruffalo Noel Kevitz. Also, as mentioned before, College Board and ACT charge colleges nearly 50 cents per student for contact information from PSAT or pre-ACT exams, so colleges can begin reaching out to them as early as sophomore year.

What are they doing with this information?

Colleges want this information for two main reasons: to engage with students and to track their interest in the school. Student data is very valuable, as it allows colleges to connect with students who may not have heard of them, and it gives them the opportunity to pitch their school. Also, an important metric in college admissions and rankings is what is called the ‘yield rate’. This is the percent of students who attend a given college out of the total number accepted. While a school like Harvard has a yield rate in the mid to upper 80th percentile, the national yield average is 26%. Schools have the ability to track how often and for how long a student visits their website, opens their emails, follow them on social media, etc. This will help colleges determine how much interest an applicant has in their school.

Which schools are doing this?

While most colleges will track students in one way or another, a recent study showed that only about 50 colleges utilize the ‘cookies’ function on their website to track students and collect student data.

What can students do to prevent being tracked?

If a student truly does not want to be tracked by colleges, they would need to avoid online communication with the schools and admissions counselors. They may want to use a school computer or one at their local library so colleges don’t have access to their personal IP address. However, in many ways, if a student is very interested in a college,  and the college can track that interest, it can help a student in admissions.

How does this affect students and their chances for an education?

It varies from college to college. Schools that are the most selective tend to have enough applicants and a large enough endowment where they do not need to track student interest or ability to pay. However, colleges that are less selective or have to work to meet their enrollment goals from year to year will absolutely closely track student interest, and can potentially track them or their parents to find out how much they can afford.

Tuition-driven colleges will want to ensure they are accepting enough students that can pay the full amount or a good portion of it. If this is the case, students who do not interact enough with colleges online or who may rely on financial aid to fund their education, potentially could be negatively affected in this process.

Do you feel this is a fair system or unfair and why?

Unfortunately, college is a business, and part of an admissions counselor’s job is to promote their school and make sure they bring in enough students from year to year. In an ideal world, all colleges would admit or deny students based solely on merits and personal attributes alone (not their ability to demonstrate interest or to pay for college), but for the foreseeable future, this is how the process works.

I don’t think it is fair, especially to students from disadvantaged communities or lower social economic status, but it’s the reality of the current state of college admissions.

Do you know of any stories or personal anecdotes of affected students we can share with our readers?

A few years ago, I counseled a student who applied to only four colleges: Harvard, Stanford, MIT, and Michigan. He was very bright and well qualified for all of these universities, but he knew his chances of getting into more than one or two was very slim. The admit rates for each school are as follows: Stanford (4%), Harvard (5%), MIT (8%), and Michigan (29%). Eventually, he was admitted into three schools and denied from one. The one he was denied from was Michigan–the one with the far higher admit rate. When I contacted the school to find out why my student was denied, they said he never showed interest. He never visited, attended an info session in his area, or contacted admissions, and they didn’t want to ‘waste’ an acceptance on a student who likely had other options.

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