Buffalo State tracking prospective students’ internet history, according to Washington Post report

Shavonne Pucula, Staff Writer

SUNY Buffalo State was recently mentioned in a Washington Post article. 

Cool, right? Not really.

Washington Post investigative reporters Douglas MacMillan and Nick Anderson recently did a story about colleges who use cookies to track students’ history online and Buffalo State was one of nearly four dozen schools involved.

PC Magazine Encyclopedia says a cookie is “a small text file (up to 4KB) created by a website that is stored in the users’ computer either temporarily for that session only or permanently on the hard disk. They provide a way for the website to recognize you and keep track of your preferences.” 

According to the story, there are 44 schools practicing in using cookies in order to track their students whether it’s for customizing their messages to catch the students’ attention or for them to see if that student will benefit the school. 

These schools are in operation with companies such as those with Ruffalo Noel Levitz to gain this technology. They work with the company and use the cookies to not only see what the student is accessing on the schools’ website but can also use that information to figure out things such as financial status, the high school you attended, your religion, who you live with and much more. The companies are even trying to win over school officials to negotiate larger contracts and more access to students’ data.

It was shown that some schools actually use a formula based on the information they gain from these cookies to rank the prospects of students who are applying. 

The formula gives students who are out-of-state a higher percentage than those who live nearby (30%), it weighs students who are planning to major in an area that the school is strong in will score higher than students who major in an area the school isn’t really known for. It also weighs students’ distance from the school by 7.9%, their income level by 7.2% and their consumer purchasing behavior by 6.8%, with several other factors playing into this. 

At first, this technology was used to decide which regions and high schools to target their recruiting, the newest form of these cookies let administrations build profiles on students based on financial status to decide whether or not they have enough income to help the school meet revenue goals. 

The Post spoke with Buffalo State chief information officer, Jacquelyn Malcolm. She was quoted as saying that students “have a choice of not interacting at all”. 

According to the story, she suggested “that applicants can get information by calling the school, visiting its social media accounts or visiting other websites with information about different colleges.” 

The Post got an email later from the school saying they were looking into how to better communicate the policy.

“In an email, a spokesman for SUNY Buffalo State later said that the school is exploring new ways to inform students about its privacy practices and that anyone can request not to be tracked by sending an email directly to Malcolm,” according to The Post.

Many of these schools don’t give students the option to opt-out nor do they let the students know what they’re doing. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA require schools to ask for students’ permission before they share their personal data with outside sources. Yet, some schools have classified the consulting companies as “school officials”. This makes a legal designation that exempts them from FERPA is certain conditions are met. 

The Record spoke to a few students currently enrolled at Buffalo State College to get their insight on the school using cookies. They all had the same general concern and felt that there was a violation of privacy, an immoral way to raise revenue, and the discrimination is just wrong. 

“Well yeah there’s a choice to not go to the school’s website but that doesn’t make the practice any less manipulative and wrong,” said current Buffalo State student Jack Courtney. “They literally said if you don’t like it don’t come to our school. I’ll definitely keep that in mind when the transfer season comes about. If they’re collecting data, and even further, sharing it with third parties not officially affiliated with the school, it should be explicit where it’s going, and what’s being done with it.”

Another student stated that if students can get a ton of emails a day from the book store, the school can send one out about this or at least bring it up at orientation. We should be informed and be able to opt-out considering it’s our information. 

Technology is advancing and everyone is using it to benefit themselves.