Cookies, emails, and browsing history: USF’s tracking strategy

Do you know how often you visited USF’s website while you were applying to the University? What about how much time you spent on each page, weighing the math department against the nursing program? Do you know how often you opened an email from USF, or how often you sent them to the trash folder for digital eternity without reading them?

USF knows all of that, and much more.

A report from The Washington Post’s Douglas MacMillan and Nick Anderson exposed dozens of colleges and universities using digital tracking tools to garner information about prospective students before they even applied to the school. In some instances, this included users’ web browsing history and other potentially sensitive data.

MacMillan reached out to the Foghorn to share his notes about USF, one of 33 institutions implicated in the story.

Since March 2017, USF has been using a customer relationship management (CRM) platform called Slate, produced by a company called Technolutions. Slate offers a wide suite of tools for schools to use in communicating with and managing their students — among its 172 tools are those which let clients track email responses, embed tracking cookies on website visitors’ devices, and even add animated confetti ribbons on digital college acceptance letters.

USF and over 1,000 other schools that use Slate have access to all of these features and more. It is up to the individual schools to exercise the great responsibility which comes along with great features — the University told the Post it “uses analytics to plan financial aid and help recruiters find diverse students.”

“The thing that we are trying to do is make sure that we recruit the right students for our institution. We also need to make sure that we have the right number of students at the right price,” Mary Chase, the vice provost for strategic enrollment at Creighton University, another university implicated in the Post story, told the Post Daily podcast. “In today’s world, I think that high school students are very aware that every move they make, whether it be on social media or on a website, that they are being tracked.”

Michael Beseda, vice provost for strategic enrollment at USF, cooperated with MacMillan in his reporting. In discussions with the Foghorn, Beseda reiterated that USF’s use of the data it collects is on the conservative end of the spectrum compared to other universities.

“The concern is that the student information is being used in ways that isn’t beneficial to students or they don’t know about,” Beseda said. “One of the great examples is like, ‘Are you using the information to make admission decisions, or to exclude students from recruitment?’ Well, you could, but we don’t.”

The strategy has been referred to by some in the Post investigation as “Moneyball for college admissions,” alluding to the Michael Lewis book and later movie adaptation about the Oakland Athletics, who used data and analytics in the early 2000s because they could not financially compete with richer baseball franchises. Beseda agreed that data tracking is a tool that USF uses in order to improve efficiency, but disagreed with the characterization that USF is a school fighting for its financial life.

“Wherever you are in the pecking order, you feel like you’re looking uphill,” he said.

Beseda reiterated that while USF, through Slate, has collected this data, most of it is not used. “Slate is a powerful tool,” he added.

“It’s a bit like buying a very powerful automobile. And you can decide if you want to speed or not. We’re not using it to speed,” he said. “We’re using it to communicate with students and to hopefully do that in an efficient and effective way to tell the story of USF. And then, obviously, to make admission decisions that are fair, equitable, timely … you know, things like that.”

When pressed on whether or not Slate’s technology is used to make admissions decisions, Beseda clarified that it is used as a platform for counselors to access applications and appropriate documents via the internet, rather than lugging home stacks of paper documents.

“I think the University needs to be transparent about this issue,” Paolo Sayas, ASUSF vice president of advocacy, said. “I don’t feel comfortable with the University having that much power and influence and control over our students, especially prospective students. I know that they would argue that it’s important data to be collecting, but also argue that students have a right to their privacy.”

Beseda remained adamant that data collected through Slate does not end up on a student’s “permanent record.”

Student employees within the Office of Admissions were unsurprised at the Post article’s findings. They casually acknowledged their access to this data and conveyed that viewing applicants’ tracked data is a relatively normal practice.

“Within the enrollment world, the reaction to Doug [MacMillan]’s article was like, ‘Oh my gosh, he’s so naive. He doesn’t know what he’s really writing about,’” Beseda said.

Some schools implicated in the Post’s story offered students an option to opt-out of such tracking. At the time of publication, USF does not offer such an option. In a follow-up email, Beseda, echoing Chase, said, “If a prospective student wishes to receive information about a college, apply for admission, or apply for financial aid, they do need to share a great deal of information.”

This is part one of an ongoing series looking into the USF-related details revealed in The Washington Post’s reporting. Next week’s issue will feature a look at how USF identifies and recruits black applicants. Follow @sffoghorn on Twitter to read it first.


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