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Data Mining Now a Factor in College Admissions Decisions

As the number of students submitting college applications continues to increase, colleges today are collecting all the data they can on applicants to see which ones stand out. Recently, this data has come to include a prospective student’s online engagement with digital correspondences from a school as well.

In order to decide which prospective students to admit, college admissions offices collect data on how much attention an applicant is giving their school, a variable known in the admissions field as “demonstrated interest.”

Mandee Heller Adler, founder and managing partner at International College Counselors, told The College Post that schools can calculate demonstrated interest in a variety of different ways. This can include visiting a school, writing a letter, meeting with an admissions representative or taking polls.

However, according to a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, some colleges are now calculating demonstrated interest on their applicants by mining digital data, allowing them to know down to the second when a prospective student opens an email from the school, how long they spend reading the email, and whether or not they clicked on any links.

Colleges can buy software that tracks data on these prospective students, and among the largest software providers is Technolutions Inc., The Wall Street Journal reported. Technolutions Inc. created Slate, a product that generates a dashboard summarizing thousands of data points on each student. It is currently used by 850 schools.

The article also mentions that the digital information collected is generally used to make decisions on borderline candidates, and that the National Association for College Admission Counseling considers demonstrated interest as being of moderate importance.

Both Heller Adler and The Wall Street Journal pointed to the rise in college applications through the Common App as the reason that such in-depth tracking is now taking place.

“The problem with the common application is that it does make it quite easy to apply to a lot of colleges,” Heller Adler said. “However, if the requirement of demonstrated interest is expanded, it just adds another layer for students [in the application process] and for schools [in differentiating students].”

Despite the influence that a student’s demonstrated interest can have in their admissions decision, few students are aware that colleges today are even collecting demonstrated interest data.

“I don’t think it’s something that schools necessarily advertise,” Heller Adler said. “Although, if a student is deferred [in the admissions process] they may receive an update letter, which is a school telling the student that they want said student to take the extra step.”

Heller Adler said that the role of the admissions counselor is not to coach students how to hit certain demonstrated interest points, but rather to help the student research and apply to schools by authentic means.

Since coming to light, this lack of transparency about digital data mining and its impact on demonstrated impact has caused mixed reactions among students.

Lauren Russell, an undergraduate student at DePaul University, told The College Post she knew colleges tracked information, but not to the extent that The Wall Street Journal article explained.

“I was not aware of how advanced the tracking was,” Russell said. “I think it shows enthusiasm from the school in picking students, but [data] to that degree may be inconclusive. The rate someone responds to an email is not exactly a practical measure.”

Mary Clare Wall, a junior at Butler University, said she does not find data tracking unethical, but believes the practice should be disclosed to students.

“A major factor in determining student interest should be based on a student’s intentional activities, not just their implicit online behavior,” Wall told The College Post. “It would not be fair if a student had strong interest but their technological activity or access indicated otherwise, affecting their admissions decision.”

However, others like Collin Sharpe, an engineering student at Case Western Reserve University, said he thinks students should not be made aware of the process given how easy it would be for them to skew the results in their favor.

“It would become standard for applying students to artificially maximize ‘demonstrated interest,’” Sharpe told The College Post. “I do not think online tracking should be considered meaningful because of how easy it is to fake that type of interest.”

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