Knowing What Colleges Already Know About You

Data Disclosure Would Help Prospective and Active Students Alike

Julie Margetta Morgan takes economist Richard Thaler’s idea that companies should disclose confidential information they gather on their on consumers and applies it to higher education.

Two prospective students tour the campus of Washington University in St. Louis. (AP/Jeff Roberson)
Two prospective students tour the campus of Washington University in St. Louis. (AP/Jeff Roberson)

Ever wonder what Facebook does with the information it collects about you? Ever wonder what you could do with that same information? Economist Richard Thaler recently raised the notion that consumers could benefit if companies would turn the data they collect over to the public. His mantra is “It’s my data—give it back!”

The University of Chicago economist is onto something here. It makes a lot of sense to expect companies to turn over all the information they collect, though it sounds a bit off the wall. After all, that data about themselves could help consumers make better decisions. But why just Facebook? How about colleges and universities?

Higher learning institutions across our nation collect a tremendous amount of information about students and prospective students for marketing, predicting admissions yield, and increasingly, for compliance with completion goals. Right now, colleges use the information to target their promotions toward particular students, to build their brands, or to change the services they offer to meet demand. But some of that information could also be used to help students understand more about the colleges and more about themselves.

For instance, colleges and universities use independent consultants> to collect data about current and prospective students to understand how to target the students who would be the most successful at their institutions. In stark contrast to the rich data these institutions can collect on their past, present, and prospective students, college-bound students only have access to the data collected through federal sources and a handful of other pieces of information.

Wouldn’t it be helpful to a prospective student to know where they fit? More importantly, it certainly would be helpful to students to know the schools where they won’t be likely to succeed.

Thaler argues that data belongs to individuals, so they should have access to it. There’s even more reason to think that individuals should have access to data collected by colleges: these institutions use public money to operate, and so the information they collect should be available to help achieve public purposes such as college completion rates, access to admission, and affordability.

In fact, keeping this information proprietary may work against these public purposes. As Thaler points out, collecting information allows companies to make more money. It does not serve the public or individuals when colleges use the data they collect to attract students while charging ever higher tuition prices. 

Thaler doesn’t argue that we just place piles of data into the hands of individuals because they may not be equipped to use it effectively. He envisions middle men who would repurpose the data to help individuals understand their own purchasing decisions or usage patterns, with their permission. In higher education, these middle men already exist—U.S. News and World Report, the College Board, and pricey independent college counselors—but the data they repackage at this point is limited, and in many cases, students have to pay to get access to it. With the cost of tuition on the rise, we shouldn’t be adding one more expense by expecting students to give up information for free and then pay to get it back.

Congress and the Department of Education often look to better information as a way to improve student access to colleges and universities and to gauge college-completion rates. Rather than recycling the data gathered in federal databases, they should look take a closer look at the rich information these institutions collect about their students and prospective students—information that is never released publicly. Right now, colleges and universities hold all the cards. It’s time for students and families to be dealt a fair hand in the college-admissions game, and for them to understand what it takes for these institutions to graduate their students successfully.

Julie Margetta Morgan is a Policy Analyst with the Postsecondary Education Program at the Center for American Progress.

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Julie Margetta Morgan

Director of Postsecondary Access and Success