When students use the calculators that colleges post on their websites to estimate the net price of attendance, these students expect that in exchange for a few minutes of their time, they will get a fairly reliable estimate of the cost of college. But students may be giving up far more than they receive. Net price calculators can be used to collect names, contact information, and detailed financial data that colleges or vendors can use or even sell, turning the calculators from a consumer resource into a powerful marketing tool.
Congress required colleges to develop and post these calculators as part of the reauthorization of the 2008 Higher Education Act. As such, federal legislators are responsible for ensuring that the calculators operate in the best interest of consumers and protect their privacy. Furthermore, federal policymakers will likely continue to develop tools that give consumers customized college information based on their own personal data. If net price calculators are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to encouraging students and families to share private data, privacy protections need to be strengthened before more tools are developed.
Net price calculators offer users a customized estimate of the net cost of college attendance based on data such as the user’s income, savings, family size, and other key financial information. But the law mandating the calculators set out only basic requirements for their development, leaving room for colleges to add their own questions and to contract with vendors that develop the calculators’ technology.
As a result, it was up to the colleges themselves to decide how the student data collected through the calculators would be stored, analyzed, and distributed. As The Institute for College Access and Success noted in its 2011 report, “Adding It All Up: An Early Look at Net Price Calculators,” colleges have opted to design their net price calculators in a variety of ways, with different strategies for data collection.
Some net price calculators ask for the user’s name, mailing address, e-mail address, and phone number without mentioning that this information is, by law, completely optional. Other colleges invite students to enter contact information in order to save the user’s data or to receive further information from the college (here is an example). In both cases, colleges are able to create databases with users’ names, contact information, and financial data without ever disclosing these activities.
The use of net price calculators to collect, store, analyze, and potentially even distribute student data should be of concern for many reasons. At the top of this list is the age of the users. Users include high school students, a majority of whom are under the age of 18. The federal government has recently undertaken efforts to ensure children’s privacy online; the Federal Trade Commission, for example, released a report this week raising concerns about the collection of personal data through apps aimed at kids. And in 2011 Reps. Ed Markey (D-MA) and Joe Barton (R-TX) examined the information-collection methods used by standardized test giants the College Board and ACT, Inc. Surely the same kind of careful consideration should be given to the collection of information through a tool mandated by the federal government itself.
Age aside, the use of net price calculators to collect information that is not necessary to achieve a net-cost estimate—things such as name, birth date, or address—should concern advocates of both data privacy and college access. Students and parents should be able to get a decent estimate of the cost of college without having to give up anything but the information absolutely necessary for that calculation. And users should be informed of what the college or vendor plans to do with the data collected.
That is not to say that colleges cannot ask for contact information or save the data collected for further analysis. But any request for identifying information should be accompanied by a clear statement describing the use of that information, as well as how contact information will be connected to the financial information provided through the calculator. To evaluate the protections afforded through net price calculators, policymakers should reflect on these key questions:
- Does the calculator ask for identifying information such as name, address, phone number, or birth date?
- Does the calculator make clear which pieces of information are optional and which are essential to completing a cost estimate?
- Who owns the data—the college itself or the vendor who developed the calculator? Is this clearly disclosed to the user? What are the implications of data ownership by vendors?
- Are there sufficient protections for users under the age of 18?
- Do the guidelines for net price calculators sufficiently prohibit or discourage the sale of information to lead generators, private lenders, or other companies?
There is an emerging consensus among higher education policymakers that students will benefit most from customized college information sources that take into account individual circumstances. This may well be true—in fact, CAP’s own research suggests that students want more customization in their college information sources. But each time the federal government mandates or encourages tools that use students’ personal data, the issue of privacy and the potential for misuse will arise. Policymakers should use the rise in net price calculators as an opportunity to consider how they can ensure that students get more out of these tools than they give up.
Julie Margetta Morgan is the Associate Director of Postsecondary Education at the Center for American Progress.