Colleges and Big Data - is "Somebody Watching Me"?

I attended a conference for independent educational consultants last week in Providence, Rhode Island.  It was an amazing opportunity to attend breakout sessions on all different topics and hear from a wide range of experts in all areas of higher education. One of the highlights was a panel on how colleges have been and are continuing to expand their use of CRM or customer relationship management software.  

Colleges, like most businesses, are being asked to accomplish much more with fewer personnel so their goal for utilizing CRM software is to maximize the time that admissions counselor are interacting with prospective students and families and minimize the time they spend analyzing data. 

As I heard about what colleges are doing to collect data, who they’re collecting it from and how they’re utilizing it, I initially found myself bristling.  What?  The Common App exports 2,482 columns of data that are available to colleges?  OMG!  And colleges “ping” your IP address to note which pages a student visits on their website? All of a sudden, I was humming the words to “Somebody’s Watching Me” in my head!

But I quickly realized that this is actually WAY behind the curve of what’s being done by almost every business we interact with on a daily basis. And, the colleges are actually more transparent, or at least more willing to provide this information if you ask about it, than say, College Board or ACT who has been doing this for a while as part of their standardized testing.

And, for all of us, myself included, who may initially “express disappointment and concern” as this article suggests, I only had to check my phone to be reminded that the amount of data collected and how it’s being used by the colleges is still a fraction of the data we’re giving up on a daily basis.  Every time we ask Alexa to turn on the lights, watch our favorite movie or play a song, we’re giving up data.  Almost every interaction you have every day from Facebook to Google to every app on your phone provides data that is being given to a multitude of companies to be used a thousand different ways that we’re not even privy to. 

In contrast, the admissions officers on the panel shared how knowing what interests a potential student has will help them send not more, but less emails blasts to students, ones that are more personal and targeted to things they’re interested in.  It will help them send admissions offers to students who they know will accept their offer and it will free up their time building and analyzing excel spreadsheets to visit more high schools and meet with more students one on one.  

One can debate if and how Big Data is an infringement of our privacy, (and it is) but one thing we know for sure is that it’s here to stay and it’s going to get bigger. That’s why it’s important to know that it is happening, understand how and where it is impacting our lives and then use that knowledge to ask questions and demand transparency. That's what this awesome panel of college admissions folks allowed us to do.  That’s what I was privy to listen to and learn from and have the freedom to share with all of you!

Happy Independence Day!