Surveillance in Selective College Admissions

The new trend violates applicants' privacy and adds to the inequities in admissions, writes Nicholas Soodik.

February 18, 2019
 
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Facebook turns 15 this month, and to celebrate, Mark Zuckerberg wrote an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal. While you were busy with Zuck’s artful denials of the way his company exploits your digital self for profit, the same newspaper reported on similar practices in the world of selective college admissions.

According to the article, there is a new frontier in how some colleges weigh an applicant’s “demonstrated interest” -- the degree to which a prospective student has conveyed her eagerness to attend the school. Many colleges now monitor an applicant’s online behavior, tracking whether interested students open emails, how long they spend reading them and whether they follow links to university websites. The difference between an applicant who clicks and an applicant who doesn’t might separate a future student from a rejected one.

The age of surveillance in college admissions is upon us. Digital privacy advocates shudder a little, and you should, too. Our teenage children are being snooped on by the colleges they apply to. College counselors have known about this phenomenon for some time, and though we may be acclimated to the ways that Big Tech stalks us on the web, I hope we can push back a little on the selective colleges that use similar practices in evaluating applicants.

For one thing, such online tracking potentially undermines the psychological well-being of young people. At a moment when adolescents are experiencing alarmingly high rates of anxiety, monitoring whether they open every email and click each link feels like a digital torture device. Such surveillance encourages the sort of frenetic and mindless internet behavior that some psychologists say contribute to the generation’s mental health problems.

The practice also doesn’t seem that effective at what it aims to do -- measure the interest level of the prospective student. Instead, savvy applicants will juice the metric by opening links at random to pump up their digital demonstrated-interest profile. One independent college counselor quoted in the Wall Street Journal piece explains that she tells students to “assume their web traffic … is being monitored and to open every email from a college as if it were homework.” Even apart from such advice, the admissions process at selective colleges allows for astute applicants, disproportionately from affluent backgrounds, to influence their decision with behavior that says little about their academic readiness for college.

Indeed, it’s the issue of equity that troubles me the most. In tracking applicants’ online engagement with their colleges, admissions offices practice a kind of digital redlining, privileging those interested students who have internet access and the time to browse. According to the Pew Research Center, some 15 percent of American households with school-age children do not have high-speed internet access. For families making less than $30,000 per year, the number is 35 percent. These figures also skew along lines of race. Roughly 25 percent of black teens report that a lack of access to the internet at least sometimes prevents them from completing their homework. Just 4 percent of white teens say the same thing often happens to them.

For colleges that want to enroll more low-income and underrepresented students, surveilling the online behavior of their applicants would seem at cross purposes. Add to that a variety of low-tech ways that demonstrated interested -- as a factor influencing admission -- privileges those with means. Visiting campuses, attending information sessions, requesting interviews -- the process of demonstrating interest requires resources most American teens do not possess.

Colleges, as The Wall Street Journal reports, feel the need to weigh demonstrated interest to aid in the tricky business of managing their enrollment. Growth in international students and the ease in applying online have contributed to a rise in applications at many selective colleges. According to a recent report by the National Association for College Admission Counseling, roughly 67 percent of college applicants in 2000 submitted three or more applications. By the fall of 2016, that number was well over 80 percent, with 35 percent submitting at least seven applications -- the latter number closer to 13 percent in 2000. As applications go up, the yield among accepted students becomes more difficult for colleges to predict. The same Wall Street Journal article analyzed data from four-year, private colleges and found the yield rate at 34.5 percent in 2017, a steep drop from 49 percent in 2003. Assessing the interest level of applicants thus enables enrollment managers to offer admission to those students they think are likeliest to attend.

What deserves to be said, however, is that the challenge of managing enrollment at selective colleges is, in part, a monster of their own making. Colleges and universities, along with the rankings to which their administrations genuflect, have manufactured hyperselectivity as a category of importance. Lower acceptance rates and higher yield numbers convey nothing about the education a college offers and even less about the engagement metrics that correlate with transformative university experiences. The continual drumbeat about record numbers of applications -- to say nothing of the excessive marketing efforts that encourage them -- causes more and more students to send out the increasing number of applications that make enrollment so difficult to predict. Suffering from this glut in applications and the attendant challenge of determining who is serious about enrolling, these admissions offices make use of practices that undermine the well-being of their applicants; encourage superficial demonstrations of interest, not its reality; and compromise other institutional priorities, such as increasing access to historically disenfranchised student groups.

Market pressures, of course, have played a major role in leading us to this place, but snooping on prospective students is not the answer. From my work in high schools, I know that the students most ready for college tend to understand themselves as learners and human beings. They possess real intellectual curiosity and a measure of authenticity. These students work less to demonstrate interest and are, instead, simply interesting. I hope colleges everywhere can tell the difference.

Bio

Nicholas Soodik is associate director of college counseling at the Pingree School.

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