College Cost Calculators Might Trespass on Student Privacy

Students looking to calculate the cost of college might be giving up private information without even knowing it, according to AlterNet. Worse, it could be colleges themselves who are complicit in this kind of privacy breach because they fail to notify students that the use of these kinds of data collection tools could result in their data being repackaged and sold to outside vendors.

Many students consider price calculators to be a good consumer information tools that provide them with a reliable estimate of the total price of attendance for a particular school — but to arrive at that estimate, the calculators ask for a large amount of personal and financial data.

Schools don’t provide these calculators voluntarily. They are required to do so by a requirement put into place during the reauthorization of the 2008 Higher Education Act.

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.

However, the detail of which data is collected and how it is stored and used it left up to the colleges. According to AlterNet, many calculators studied asked students to enter personal information like name and email address without letting them know that this was optional. Very few warned users that this information could be used to for marketing purposes or even sold to third parties.

The concern with this kind of data collection mainly stems from the fact that many of the users of these tools are under 18. As such, the wide-scale collection of information from children and young adults goes against recent efforts by the federal government to curb the practice.

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.

Colleges could reduce the scope of the problem by taking simple steps such as laying out a clear-to-understand policy explaining how the data will be used, as well as clearly marking which information is and is not required for obtaining an accurate cost estimate.