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Thoughts on "Student Stalker"

December 09, 2014

I am a “buyer” not a shopper and I love going to the Mall because it is so efficient. I enter through Neiman Marcus, buying nothing unless it is a special occasion when I buy some jewelry for my honey. I stop by the Walking Store for shoes, the Apple Store for gadgets, the Gap for t-shirts, Macy’s for Levi’s and get a snack at Burger King, while passing up all the other restaurants in the food court. In and out within about 30 minutes. And all pretty anonymously. Even if I buy a necklace at Neiman’s, I don’t give them permission to follow me around the mall and see that I prefer shoe styles and prices at the Walking Store. It’s nobody’s business that I just prefer to buy jeans at Macy’s and t-shirts at the Gap. These are style/price judgments I make and they are nobody’s business but my own. If Neiman’s want to figure out how to sell more shoes, they should send a secret shopper to the Walking Store and figure out the style/price equation. If McDonald’s wants my burger business, try buying a few at Burger King. The answer is pretty obvious.

Realistically, however, I have no delusions that my shopping preferences are completely private. In an effort to increase profit margins, many retailers sell my purchase information to data aggregators who, in turn, repackage the information for resale. The retailers did not ask for my consent. If they did, I would withhold it. They just do it.  Legal? Probably. Ethical? Very debatable. In a world where major identity theft stories make the headlines almost weekly, this buying and selling of personal information exposes consumers to far more risk than they know or ever consented to.

So, a kid coming out of high school applies to 10 colleges and universities during his senior year.  By the time he is halfway through his first semester at college, he has 9 colleges and one high school tracking his whereabouts using the “Student Tracker” service provided by National Student Clearinghouse. At the time he was applying, I seriously doubt the student was knowingly giving consent to have his whereabouts tracked by anybody. And if there was such “consent” language in the application, is the student really in a position to negotiate that language the way a business might negotiate language in a contract? I don’t think so.   

Every institution Credentials works with is serious about student privacy. FERPA is followed religiously in every Records Office I have encountered. And yet while student data is provided to the Clearinghouse for the legitimate purpose of student loan reporting, it is passed along with a knowing wink and a nod that the Clearinghouse is going to make that same information available for data mining purpose….at a price***. What’s wrong with this picture?  Students are at a vulnerable stage in their lives. They can be pretty ignorant about how they are compromising their own privacy through social media. That is why they need adults to keep an eye out for their best interests. After their parents, I think their educators are next in line to protect their best interests. And if that is true, how is it justifiable that their “protectors” are simultaneously stalking these young people? What is to be gained? Legal? Maybe. Ethical? ABSOLUTELY NOT!

Let’s rethink this one.  If institutions want to figure out why students are choosing to attend a competing institution, try going “old school”.  Send a few secret shoppers over to the competition to try out the cheeseburgers in their cafeteria.


*** NSC advertises its services as “free”.  However, their fee structure is such that the institution must use a package of services that yield significant income from students and businesses in order to receive “Student Tracker” free of charge. 

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