The deluge of student data privacy laws proposed at both the state and federal levels attempt to provide much-needed updates to antiquated privacy regulations that allow far too many loopholes for the access and sharing of data. But in the rush to protect students’ information and keep profiteers from accessing students’ personal data, we risk losing crucial opportunities to use these data to help students, particularly those from less privileged backgrounds.
How can this be the case? In response to justifiable concerns about who has access to student data and what they do with it, many proposed student data privacy laws -- more than 140 have been introduced in 49 states, and more than 30 have already passed -- include stipulations to prevent “operators” and/or “school service providers” from sharing data, even for educational purposes.
Some, but not all, of the state bills make exceptions for nonprofit organizations like ACT, which play an important role in connecting students to crucial information and resources that can increase the likelihood that they will enroll in college, learn about scholarships and connect with organizations that support student success in postsecondary education. One of the proposed federal bills that has surfaced on Capitol Hill, the Student Data Privacy Rights Act, would, in its current form, negatively affect our ability to conduct and provide educational research for the public good, and make it more difficult for students to receive information about college opportunities and scholarships.
How many students could be negatively affected by a poorly written law? In 2014, 1.8 million students took the ACT test, including 57 percent of all graduating high school seniors nationwide. When students register to take the ACT, they have the option of completing a survey about their plans and aspirations for life after high school. Participation is voluntary, though 86 percent chose to complete the survey. By completing the survey and indicating their desire to opt in, students give permission for their information to be shared with colleges and scholarship organizations that send them information about programs and resources matching their financial needs and academic interests.
For over 50 years, ACT has been a trusted and proven partner in collecting such data. Organizations that provide millions of dollars of college scholarships to qualified students rely on ACT’s data to help them reach students who might not otherwise know that they qualify for their programs and funding. But if proposed laws lack flexibility in their definitions of “operator” or “school service provider,” these scholarship organizations stand to lose access to those data. And the end result is that deserving students would lose an important and possibly life-changing opportunity.
Among the concerns raised about sharing students’ personal data is that it can lead to them being stereotyped or pigeonholed too early in their lives. I think we have to trust students to make decisions about their data, and about the opportunities that they might or might not decide to pursue.
As a student affairs administrator at Stanford University, Dartmouth College and other institutions, I’ve worked with countless students who, at one point, hadn’t thought they were “college material,” or qualified to attend the most competitive colleges. What changed their minds and motivated them was receiving information from institutions and organizations that recognized their talent, work ethic and potential and encouraged them to apply for admission and scholarship programs. And colleges send this information after they use services like ACT to identify those who can benefit from their programs. I’d rather help students consider all of their options than deny them the opportunity to do so.
At ACT, we are developing new initiatives and partnerships to expand data-driven outreach efforts to increase college opportunity. Earlier this academic year, ACT launched the Get Your Name in the Game initiative to provide college and scholarship information to underserved students who waited until senior year to take the ACT, and who opted in to share their personal data. Our research shows that few of these students received information from colleges or scholarship programs, which tended to focus their outreach efforts on students who had taken the ACT during their junior year. To level the playing field where we could, we offered educational institutions and organizations free access to the data these students provided, in order to contact them about educational opportunities. The result is that nearly 750,000 more underserved high school seniors were connected with colleges and scholarship funders who were interested in them. Despite the promising early results of this initiative, it would have to be discontinued if the proposed laws forbid us from sharing these data.
As our federal and state governments continue to collaborate with educational organizations to sort out the details of these laws, it’s important that they are also vigilant in preserving opportunities for nonprofits to share data within strict ethical and legal standards. Responsible and effective stewards of data like ACT are already doing this.
To ensure that our data are only shared for the benefit of students, we strictly vet any organizations that request access to students’ information. Companies that charge students or their families fees for services are banned. Only organizations with an educational mission are eligible for access, and they are not allowed to share the data with any other organizations.
We also recognize that students and their families are often confused about what information is being shared and for what purposes. This is why we support the current push for greater transparency -- it’s important that organizations like ACT are clear and forthcoming about how they regulate and safeguard access to students’ data. We provide detailed information on our policies and practices on student data privacy here.
There is also a strong need for parents to educate themselves, and teach their children, about how to make wise decisions about sharing their personal data. On Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, children are deemed old enough to authorize their data to be shared with these companies at age 13 -- including birth dates, personal photos and where they go to school. As a parent and former student affairs dean, I cannot tell you how important it is for parents to discuss these matters with their children.
There is a lot of monitoring that parents need to do in the current environment of massive social networks, and for-profit companies taking advantage of the ease of access to tons of data about their children. But students and their families also need to be given the choice to share their data with trusted education organizations. If data-sharing restrictions are placed on nonprofits like ACT, students and their families will lose the right to make the decision for themselves to receive information from colleges and scholarship funds.
As these laws evolve and gain clarity, policy makers should balance the need for updated safeguards while preserving the ability for proven programs that benefit students to continue to do so by virtue of collecting and sharing data.
Jim Larimore is the chief officer for underserved learners at ACT. He previously served as deputy director for student success at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and has been a student affairs professional at Stanford University, Dartmouth College, Swarthmore College, NYU Abu Dhabi and Amherst College.