When asked, most college admissions and enrollment professionals will say they rely heavily on one primary method of accessing college bound students. It’s not much different than a retail brand buying consumers data from credit card companies of individuals who have purchased competing products. Colleges purchase or license lists of student PII: names, email addresses and home addresses of high school students to promote their institutions to in the hopes they will apply.
Student PII is not the same as consumer PII
Students targeted in undergraduate college recruiting are typically under 18 years old. They are not adults, yet their PII is collected AND shared with colleges freely. There are many regulations that address children’s and student privacy including federal statues like GLBA, PPRA, IDEA and FERPA, as well as state laws. However, in many instances the students and parents are not aware they have unwittingly agreed to sharing their info with education-related third parties.
Have you ever noticed immediately following signing up for something catalogs start clogging your mailbox or SPAM emails pop into your inbox nonstop? When students register for and take surveys affiliated with tests like the PSAT, SAT and ACT, register on websites for scholarships, or other “sign ups”, colleges can purchase or license access to their personal data. In some cases, students “opt in” to participation and sharing that info with education-related third parties. However, according to research by the USED Privacy Technical Assistance Center (PTAC) it is not always clear this is voluntary.
The colleges on the receiving end don’t know if the student is interested in their school or open to receiving emails, direct mail or phone calls from them. Worse yet, the data is held in the college’s database indefinitely. The stream of mail and email often continue long after the end of the recruiting cycle due to poor database management. Yes, students can “opt out” of emails and politely decline when called – but their PII is still out there.
Over the last few years, consumers have become more educated about data privacy and the handling of their PII. Data breaches and identity theft are, unfortunately, part of everyday life. Our privacy is limited. We all know about GDPR, the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal, and all the data Google collects every second you are online. Your mobile device ID is circulated to thousands of databases and “resold”. Your online search data is tracked leading to those annoying pop-up ads.
Some big changes need to be made in terms of student PII, and they starting to happen with new bills in the works. But, it’s not just the regulators colleges need to worry about. The data shows that Gen Z, the age group undergrad programs are recruiting for today, are a lot more privacy savvy than previous generations. According to an IBM / National Retail Federation study Gen Z wants control over their data and brand interactions: 55 percent want to decide what information they share with brands, and 54 percent want to control how brands contact them.
Thinking outside the traditional marketing box
As an industry, educational institutions need to look at their own marketing and recruitment practices to attract the digital natives that make up Gen Z. Imagine if you could recruit, engage and nurture students without their PII.
How? Quite simply if students had a tool to research a college anonymously, then allow that college to proactively engage with and nurture that student until the student decide to “opt in” and share their PII, it’s a homerun for all! Also, if a college has specific criteria to identify a “best fit student” (whatever it may be) that same tool could be used to find the student. Then, the student can make the choice to share their PII and start the process to request information, visit a campus, or apply to the school. Before they take this step, students could engage in 100% anonymity. And they can choose to opt in or opt out whenever they want.
It’s about time we set the stage for a new way for college bound students to explore and engage with colleges without exposing their PII. In today’s age of data theft and breaches, it’s more important than ever before to protect the PII of children under 18.