Universities: They’re Learning From You Too by Keri Wheatley
Universities want you to succeed. Did you know that? Besides the altruistic reasons, universities are also incentivized to make sure you do well. School funding is largely doled out based on performance. In Florida, state performance funding is determined by ranking the 11 eligible universities on 10 criteria, such as their six-year graduation rate, salaries of recent graduates, retention of students and student costs. The top ranked university nets the most funding while the 3 lowest ranked universities don’t get any at all. To put it into perspective, Florida A&M University earned $11.5 million for the 2016-2017 school year, but then lost that funding when it finished 10th on the list the next year. Policies like these, coupled with the trend of decreasing enrollments, have compelled universities to start thinking about ways to improve their numbers.
Data analytics is a rapidly growing field in the higher education industry. Universities are no longer using data just for recording keeping, but they are also using data to identify who will be successful and who needs more help. What does this mean for you? Before you enroll and while you are there, the university’s basic systems collect thousands of data points about you – high school background, age, hometown, ethnicity, communications with your professor, campus housing, number of gym visits, etc. This is normal. If a university didn’t keep track of these things, it wouldn’t be able to run the basic functions of the organization. However, it is when a university decides to combine these disparate data systems into one dataset that this raises some eyebrows. The mosaic effect happens when individual tidbits of information get pieced together to form a picture that wasn’t apparent from the individual pieces. And having that knowledge is powerful.
But they’re using their powers for good, right? There are a lot of questions that should posed when universities begin building such datasets.
What about security? Every day, data is becoming more vulnerable. Organizations, especially those regulated and funded by government agencies, just can’t keep up with new threats. When universities begin aggregating and sharing this data internally, they open themselves and their students to new risks. Do the benefits for the students outweigh the potential harms? This can only be answered on a case-by-case basis, since the security practices and uses of data differ vastly between universities.
Who has access? FERPA, one of the nation’s strictest privacy protection laws, was written to protect student personal information. This law restricts universities from selling student data to other organizations, and also dictates that universities have to create policy to restrict access to only those who need it. In practice, however, these policies are applied ambiguously. Professors shouldn’t have access to students’ grades, but your history professor wants to know why you wrote such a bad essay in his class, so he has a use case to look up your English I grade. Unless a university has stringent data access policies, this dataset could be shared with persons at the university who don’t need access to it.
How do they use the data? There are many ways. Once a university collects the data of all students, it gets a birds-eye view. Institutional researchers then have the ability to answer any question. Which students will drop out next semester? Do students who attend school events do better than students who don’t? How about computer lab visits? How does the subject line affect email open rates? These are all investigations I have done. Universities tend to ask more questions than they can provide actions to the answers. This leads to an unintentional imbalance where the university learns more about its students than is necessary to make decisions.
Universities are asking a lot of questions and finding the answers through the data. In doing so, they are learning more about their students than their students are aware of. How would a student feel if he knew someone was monitoring his gym visits and predicting what grades he will get? What if his academic advisor knew this piece of information about him? How would the student feel when he starts getting subtle nudges to go to the gym? These scenarios are a short step from becoming reality.
In the end, you are purchasing a product from universities—your degree. Shouldn’t they have a right to analyze your actions and make sure you are getting the best product? At what point do we consider it an invasion privacy versus “product development”?