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Colleges are tracking applicants' browser history, according to new report

Published: October 16, 2019
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If you're in the process of applying for college, be warned that it isn't just your grades and extracurricular activities that are being reviewed by schools. According to a report from the Washington Post, at least 44 public and private universities across the United States have started to work with third-party companies to collect and track data on prospective students, including web browsing activity and financial history. These practices could lead to schools favoring students based on financial incentives for the school, placing students from low-income backgrounds at a disadvantage.

According to the Post, the tracking process begins as soon as a student first directs their browser to a school's website. Many schools have started to implement tracking software on their sites that are able to identify a person based on other online activity. This type of software, often called a cookie, is typically associated with online advertising. When you visit a site searching for boots, for instance, and all of a sudden start seeing advertisements for boots on other sites, it's because of tracking cookies. In the case of these schools, those cookies are used to gauge a person's interest in the university. It tracks their activity, on site and off, and can use data about the person's location and interests to determine who the student is. That information is given to the admissions office to pair with existing data about the student, including their name, contact information, and additional details about their life like when they are graduating and what areas of the school they showed interest in based on activity on the site, and where the student lives.

For students getting ready to apply for college, this may come as a surprise. When asked to submit test scores for the ACT or SAT and transcripts of grades, no one from the university tells these students that things like their web browsing activity will also factor into their admissions process. Students already have their social media profiles subject to review in the admissions process, but other online activity represents a new concern. It appears to at least be one factor considered by a number of universities looking to build more complete profiles of applicants. Using that tracking data plus other information collected from applicants, schools use an algorithm that processes all of this data and produces a score called an "affinity index" that predicts their likely interest in attending the school. The higher a person's affinity index, the more resources the school is likely to spend trying to recruit that student.


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