Oct 5, 2019

What College Board knows about you

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

If you've taken a college entry test in the last few years, your personal information may have been used to decide which colleges can recruit you.

Why it matters: Universities and other educational organizations are buying high schoolers' personal data from SAT administrator College Board to target and recruit future students. More than 3 million students in 2018 gave up their personal information in the process of taking the SAT, ACT and PSAT, the New York Times reports.

Driving the news: 3 Democratic senators sent letters to numerous education technology companies and data brokers in August, including College Board, expressing concern over data collection practices that could put students, parents and educational institutions at risk of having "massive amounts of personal information" stolen or sold.

How College Board gets information: Before SAT testing begins, students are given a voluntary survey to opt into a "Student Search Service" program, meaning students consent to be contacted by "qualified colleges, universities, nonprofit scholarship services and educational organizations," for programs that match their interests.

The pre-survey for the SAT collects the most information: A student's email address, state, county, zip code, gender, ethnicity, GPA, high school activities, future college preferences, sports, honors, major and financial aid.

  • College Board, a nonprofit, never shares disability status, self-reported parental income, social security numbers, phone numbers and actual test scores to those it licenses data. In 2018, it stopped asking students for their religious affiliations.

College Board strongly emphasizes that it's fully transparent to students and parents on data privacy and that students consent to share their information. But language in the survey and the student handbook does not disclose that the data is sold to third-parties.

  • Lack of transparency and proper vetting can lead to misuse and abuse of student information, the Future of Privacy Forum found. In 2018, the Education Department warned that public schools should make clearer to students and parents that College Board's questions are voluntary and that the data is later sold.

College Board has data-sharing agreements with 1,900 educational institutions that allow the purchase or licensing of student information. Those institutions are allowed to share students' data with certain educational partners.

  • Qualified parties can purchase each student's data for $0.47.
  • College Board found that students were 12% more likely than their peers to enroll at a 4-year college if they signed up to be contacted by these partners.
  • But experts say even innocuous information like a student's participation in extracurriculars or youth groups makes the data much more valuable to third parties. For example, colleges or institutions could assume a student's religious affiliation or sexual orientation by targeting those who are in church groups or gay-straight alliances.
"At the highest and most ideal level, [College Board's] Student Search Service is incredibly important to expose students to new educational opportunities. Questions have been raised in the past whether the parties College Board is sharing information with are the appropriate parties."
— Amelia Vance, director of education privacy at the Future of Privacy Forum

Previous reports on who the College Board sells the information to can get murky. In 2018, the New York Times reported a third-party company used data from the SAT's pre-survey to prey on select students for a college prep event. Students and families paid nearly $1,000 to attend a function that wasn't at all useful for them to apply to college.

Reps from the College Board said “the College Board does not sell user data, we have licensing agreements. The College Board maintains a direct relationship with and oversight of institutions, scholarship and educational programs using College Board-sourced student data.”

What you can do: In the last 5 years, there have been nearly 130 laws put in place that protect student privacy in over 40 states. Parents and students can get in touch with their schools to understand what information is being shared between College Board and the institution.

The bottom line: A college entrance exam is a defining point in a student's future. The data collected and used to market schools can affect what future opportunities are available to them.

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