Colleges are secretly using social media data to rank applicants


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Employers nowadays either ask for, or simply look for, a job applicant's “social media profiles” – to vet them for whatever they feel needs to be vetted for. So in that context – why not “start often, start early” – in other words, why not subject college students to the same process even before they hit the job market? Someone's surely thought of that.

Or even, as the Washington Post suggests – go as deep as weeding out prospective students' ability to even enroll in a university-based on some “rich data”.

At least 44 US colleges “work with outside consulting companies to collect and analyze data on prospective students” – and the data is pretty comprehensive, as one might fully expect in this day and age.

However, it's not privacy per se that the Washington Post worries about when reporting about the range of data given to some admissions officers who benefit from working with consulting firms.

The report looks at how all this might hinder the prospects of underprivileged students, as one of the conclusions of this data harvesting and analyzing effort seems to be to determine the income of their family, and consequently, their ability to sustain the students' ambitions and prospects within the US education system.

But what the report really reveals is that everyone caught in the dragnet of this operation has cause for concern, as “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.”

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And while the report specified that the goal of this seems to be to provide “clues about which students would make the best candidates for admission” – it sounds like a process with little regard for the privacy of just about anyone whose data is collected in this way.

The Washington Post frames this seemingly highly troublesome practice as something of a “survival of the fittest in a ruthless capitalist battle” scenario:

“An admission dean is more and more a businessperson charged with bringing in revenue. The more fearful they are about survival, the more willing they are to embrace new strategies,” the website writes, citing Lloyd Thacker of the Education Conservancy non-profit.

Some of those “new strategies” come from the likes of Ruffalo Noel Levitz and Capture Higher Ed – consultant firms, who 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.”

The Washington Post argues the case of a largely flawed admissions system that it paints it in the article – one that essentially sees collusion from cash-strapped colleges and apparently largely unethical consulting firms. And this works particularly unfavorably for some very under-privileged students.

Specifically, those who “may be a strong academic candidate but receive less attention from recruiters because they (the student) do not own a smartphone or have high-speed internet access at home.”

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Didi Rankovic

Didi Rankovich is an experienced online journalist, editor, and translator, with a career spanning over ten years writing for major a English-language website in Serbia, and previously working as translator for international organizations and peacekeepers in the Balkans. Rankovich is passionate about free and open source tech and is a head contributor for Reclaim The Net, focusing on lead stories. [email protected]