To learn more about prospective students, admissions officers at the University of Wisconsin at Stout turned to a little-known but increasingly common practice: They installed tracking software on their school website.
When one student visited the site last year, the software automatically recognized who she was based on a piece of code, called a cookie, which it had placed on her computer during a prior visit. The software sent an alert to the school's assistant director of admissions containing the student's name, contact information and details about her life and activities on the site, according to internal university records reviewed by The Washington Post. The email said she was a graduating high school senior of Mexican descent in Little Chute, Wisconsin, who had applied to UW-Stout.
The admissions officer also received a link to a private profile of the student, listing all 27 pages she had viewed on the school's website and how long she spent on each one. A map on this page showed her geographical location, and an "affinity index" estimated her level of interest in attending the school. Her score of 91 out of 100 predicted that she was highly likely to accept an admission offer from UW-Stout, the records showed.
Colleges are collecting more data about prospective students than ever before - part of an effort, administrators say, to make better predictions about which students are the most likely to apply, accept an offer and enroll. Records reviewed by The Post show that at least 44 public and private universities in the United States work with outside consulting companies to collect and analyze data on prospective students, by tracking their Web activity or formulating predictive scores to measure each student's likelihood of enrolling.
The practices may raise a hidden barrier to a college education for underprivileged students. While colleges have used data for many years to decide which regions and high schools to target their recruiting, the latest tools let administrators build rich profiles on individual students and quickly determine whether they have enough family income to help the school meet revenue goals.
The Post identified colleges with data operations by reviewing the customer lists of two top admissions consulting firms: Capture Higher Ed and Ruffalo Noel Levitz. The Post interviewed admissions staffers at 23 colleges, examined contracts and emails obtained from 26 public universities through open-records laws, and used a Web privacy tool to confirm the presence of Capture Higher Ed's tracking software on the websites of 33 universities.
Promotional video for Capture Higher Ed's student tracking service
Records and interviews show that colleges are building vast repositories of data on prospective students - scanning test scores, ZIP codes, high school transcripts, academic interests, Web browsing histories, ethnic backgrounds and household incomes for clues about which students would make the best candidates for admission. At many schools, this data is used to give students a score from 1 to 100, which determines how much attention colleges pay them in the recruiting process.
Scoring and tracking are popular at schools that are struggling to survive. Faced with shrinking sources of funding and growing competition for high school graduates, cash-strapped colleges are experimenting with new ways to identify and attract students who can afford to pay tuition, said Lloyd Thacker, a former admissions counselor and founder of the Education Conservancy, a nonprofit research group.
"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."
Admissions consulting companies charge schools tens of thousands of dollars a year to collect and analyze the data of millions of students. In emails reviewed by The Post, employees of Louisville, Kentucky-based Capture Higher Ed urged school administrators to hand over all data they felt comfortable sharing.
"We love data, so the more the merrier," one of Capture's consultants wrote in a 2017 email to the admissions director at UW-Stout.
Capture Higher Ed spokesman Jim Davidson said the company helps schools provide relevant information to students who have chosen to receive that information. Students can opt-out of Web tracking by contacting schools directly, he said.
Doug Mell, a spokesman for UW-Stout, said in an email that the school used Capture's Web tracking for a one-year trial and did not renew the contract this year. The female student who was tracked last year voluntarily gave the school her background information when she applied, he said. She enrolled in the school last year.
Consultants are expanding their influence on college campuses. Ruffalo Noel Levitz, based in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, has hired the top admissions officers at more than two dozen universities - including Vanderbilt, Creighton and Marquette - to do paid consulting work on the side, according to interviews and records. Some university officials received compensation from Ruffalo Noel Levitz at the same time that their schools were paying customers of the company - raising questions about potential conflicts of interest, Thacker said.
The vast majority of universities reviewed by The Post do not tell students the schools are collecting their information. In a review of the online privacy policies of all 33 schools using Web tracking software, only three disclosed the purpose of the tracking. The other 30 omitted any explanation or did not explain the full extent or purpose of their tracking.
Some privacy experts say that when colleges don't disclose the full extent of how they share data with outside consultants, they may violate the spirit if not the letter of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, a federal law protecting the privacy of student education records at schools that receive federal education funds. FERPA generally requires that schools ask for students' permission before sharing their personal data with any outside parties.
Rather than getting permission, some schools have classified the consulting companies as "school officials," a legal designation that exempts them from FERPA if certain conditions are met.
Zachary Greenberg, a program officer at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a student advocacy group, said colleges that do this risk undermining one of the goals of FERPA - to make the management of records more transparent. "Students deserve to know where their information is going," Greenberg said.
The Education Department can suspend all federal funding to any school it finds in violation of FERPA but has never imposed that penalty in the 45 years since the law was created. The agency has other enforcement measures and works with offenders to voluntarily come into compliance, said Angela Morabito, a spokeswoman for the Education Department. She declined to say whether colleges may be violating the law by sharing data with consulting companies.
Many schools do not give students the ability to opt-out of data collection. Jacquelyn Malcolm, chief information officer at the State University of New York's Buffalo State College, said that if prospective students do not want their Web browsing tracked, they should not visit her school's website.
"You have a choice of not interacting at all," Malcolm said in an interview, adding that applicants can get information by calling the school, visiting its social media accounts or visiting other websites with information about different colleges.
In an email, a spokesman for SUNY Buffalo State later said that the school is exploring new ways to inform students about its privacy practices and that anyone can request not to be tracked by sending an email directly to Malcolm.
Filtering recruits with socioeconomic data
Data tools appeal to schools that are trying to increase revenue by recruiting students who can afford to pay tuition.
At Mississippi State University, a state school with more than 18,000 undergraduates, administrators use data to filter a large number of potential applicants down to a select pool of recruits who are a good fit for the school's academic programs and do not need much financial aid.
Each year, Mississippi State buys data on thousands of high school students from testing firms including the College Board, which owns the SAT, said John Dickerson, assistant vice president for enrollment. These students all gave permission to have their data shared by checking a box when they took the SAT. The nonprofit testing company says on its website that it licenses the names and data of each student for 47 cents apiece.
Next, Mississippi State shares its list of prospects with Ruffalo Noel Levitz, which uses a formula to assign each one a score. According to Dickerson, the formula for out-of-state students gives the most weight (30 percent) to a student's desired major; someone choosing agriculture or veterinary sciences, areas where the school is strong, will score higher than a student who wants to major in music. The formula also weighs their distance from campus (7.9 percent), income level (7.2 percent) and consumer purchasing behavior (6.8 percent), among other factors.
The formula is an example of predictive analytics, a field of computer science that attempts to predict the likelihood of future events by looking for patterns in data. Similar to software that tries to predict what movies or music someone will like, these formulas attempt to guess which students are a good match for a college based on how many attributes they have in common with students who previously enrolled in the school.
A predictive formula may also be adjusted to favor the types of people a college wants more of, such as ethnic minorities or students of great financial means.
Mississippi State uses socioeconomic data in its admissions algorithm to recruit more high-income students from outside the state, Dickerson said. Like many public universities, Mississippi State has ramped up out-of-state recruiting because those students pay higher tuition. The university drew 42 percent of its freshmen from out of state in 2018, up from 26 percent a decade earlier, federal data shows.
"From a practical standpoint," Dickerson said, "you would want to know if folks have an ability to pay."
The majority of Mississippi State students still receive some form of financial aid, and the school says it does not use financial information to determine who gets an offer of admission. However, focusing recruiting resources on higher-income students means lower-income students may receive less encouragement to apply for college.
Shaquilla Wordlaw, a junior at Mississippi State, said she thinks it is a good idea for college recruiters to use more data to target messages to the right students. But Wordlaw, who is from Starkville, where Mississippi State is based, says the school should not discriminate against students based on their income.
"They're choosing those who are a part of the upper class rather than middle or lower, because they want money," Wordlaw said. "They're not focused on the education they are providing."
Consulting companies may estimate a student's financial position by checking their ZIP codes against U.S. Census data for estimated household incomes in that area. Ruffalo Noel Levitz and Capture Higher Ed also buy information from third-party data brokers, which gather consumer data from public and private databases on property holders, magazine subscribers and supermarket loyalty-card members.
Some schools say data analysis can help them find students who might not have applied in the first place. George Mason University, in northern Virginia, uses data analysis tools to look for nontraditional prospects who might have working-class parents or be the first in their family to go to college, said David Burge, the school's vice president for enrollment management.
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Consulting companies woo college officials
As they pursue student data, colleges have embraced an industry of consultants.
Hundreds of school administrators filled the ballroom of a Nashville, Tennessee, convention center in late July for a keynote speech by Sumit Nijhawan, a former tech executive who became CEO of Ruffalo Noel Levitz last year. He paced before a large screen and discussed how data is helping colleges tailor their pitch to individual students, similar to how tech companies such as Spotify and Netflix surface music and videos based on the user, he said. "Usually the solution to problems is lurking somewhere around in data," Nijhawan told the crowd. "And there's a lot of data in higher ed - no doubt about that."
The three-day conference, replete with lunch buffets, PowerPoint presentations and free coffee mugs with company logos, was an example of how consulting companies are trying to win over school officials as they negotiate for larger contracts and more access to student data.
At least 30 admissions officers have taken part in Ruffalo Noel Levitz's associate consulting program over the past decade, according to interviews and records posted on the company's website. Emails reviewed by The Post show the program is helping Ruffalo Noel Levitz build closer ties to campus decision-makers.
Cecilia Castellano, vice provost of strategic enrollment planning at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, became an associate consultant for Ruffalo Noel Levitz around the same time her school signed a three-year, $48,000 contract, which was obtained by The Post through a public-records request. Castellano, who was listed as the "primary contact" on that business deal in October 2016, received emails from Ruffalo Noel Levitz a few days later, asking her to sign up for a "new associate training workshop" later in the year.
In an email to Castellano the same year, Ruffalo Noel Levitz asked her to help pitch a $13,590-per-person certification program to potential customers. "Please encourage the teams on your client campuses to consider the program," the email said.
Dave Kielmeyer, a university spokesman, said Castellano attended the consultant training in 2016 and has since conducted two paid consulting projects for the company. She got approval from the school, which did not see the work as a conflict, Kielmeyer said. Castellano "has a role in hiring vendors," he said, but the school's provost or chief financial officer must approve consulting contracts.
Admissions officers at Vanderbilt, Creighton and Marquette universities say they have disclosed their consulting roles with their colleges and are careful not to work with competing schools. Nijhawan, the Ruffalo Noel Levitz CEO, said in an interview that the program is aimed at helping school administrators "share knowledge across the industry."
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Matching 'cookies' to student identities
Some of the same technologies that big companies use to track users and show ads to consumers are gaining traction in college admissions. One example is Capture Higher Ed's behavioral tracking service, which relies on cookies to record every click students make when they visit a university website.
Each visitor to the university site gets a cookie, which sends to Capture information including that person's Internet protocol (IP) address, the type of computer and browser they are using, what time of day they visited the site and which pages within the site they clicked on, according to Patrick Jackson, chief technology officer for digital privacy firm Disconnect, who reviewed college websites on behalf of The Post.
Every time that person returns to the site, Capture learns more information about them, such as their interest in athletics or the amount of time they spend on financial aid pages, according to promotional videos on the company's website.
Initially, the cookies identify each visitor by the IP address, a unique code associated with a computer's Internet connection, but Capture also offers software tools to match the cookie data with people's real identities, according to the company's promotional videos. Colleges do this by sending marketing emails to thousands of prospective students, inviting them to click on a link inside the message for more information about a particular topic, according to the videos.
When a student clicks on the link, Capture learns which email address is associated with which IP address, connecting the student's real identity to the college's snapshot of the student's Web browsing history, Capture executives said in one of the videos.
"We are embedding links in every email," Billy Pierce, then director of undergraduate admission at the University of Toledo, Ohio, a Capture customer, said onstage at a college admissions conference in 2016. "You want more of the identified visitors coming to your website because those are the kids that you have their name, their address, their email, sometimes their phone number - any information you have in your system now gets tied to their behavior," Pierce said at the conference, a video of which was posted to YouTube.
Meghan Cunningham, a spokeswoman for the University of Toledo, said the school uses Capture's software code on its website and in some of its marketing emails in an effort to give students information relevant to them. In an email, Pierce added that students choose to give their names and contact information to the school.
Admissions officers say behavioral tracking helps them serve students in the application process. When a college sees that a qualified student is serious about applying based on the student's Web behavior, it can dedicate more staffers to follow up.
"An admissions counselor may only have an hour in a given day to make contact with prospective students," Chrissy Holliday, vice president of enrollment at Colorado State University at Pueblo - a Capture Higher Ed client - said in an email. "The Web data allows the counselor to know which students are currently most engaged and might benefit most from that contact."
But Web tracking may unfairly provide an advantage to students with better access to technology, said Bradley Shear, a Maryland lawyer who has pushed for better regulation of students' online privacy. A low-income student may be a strong academic candidate but receive less attention from recruiters because the student does not own a smartphone or have high-speed Internet access at home, he said.
"I don't think the algorithm should run the admissions department," Shear said.
This article was written by Doug MacMillan and Nick Anderson, reporters for The Washington Post.