Colleges are intensifying their search for new ways to identify struggling students, because 42% of American college students drop out before finishing their degree. Arizona State university professor Matt Pittinsky believes that tracking students’ movements and purchases on campus through their student ID card could show which students are disengaging from college. However, this data-gathering raises major concerns about privacy and the role of college administrators in students’ lives.
At Arizona State, like many colleges, students swipe their ID card to buy food and access athletic and other facilities on campus. They can also use the card to shop at some off-campus locations. When discussing his research, Professor Pittinsky gives the example of a student’s visits to Starbucks. If the student has as a history of buying a cup of coffee every day before a class and then suddenly stops, while at the same time failing to log into Blackboard, this would be a sign that an adviser should “reach out to” the student. The college is not using the system yet; right now Pinttinsky is doing research with a set of anonymous swipe data. But, Arizona State is known as an enthusiastic early adopter of new technology, and where it leads, other universities follow.
The troubling thing is that in order to spot these “danger signs,” the college will have to comb through the records of everything the student has bought and every facility he or she has accessed. So in addition to the Starbucks data, college administrators could see how often the student does their laundry, whether they buy junk food, and whether they use the gym. What begins as an attempt to find struggling students could easily turn into a program to pinpoint students with unhealthy eating and exercise habits. Alternatively, colleges could use the shopping data to target advertising for their own products in the dining hall and bookstore, or sell the data to third-party advertisers.
Even if the university only uses the data to spot likely dropouts, the swipe data would represent an intimate record of the students’ lives, which could easily fall into the wrong hands. Recent security breaches at Internet giants like Google and LinkedIn demonstrated that even top-of-the-line security measures are not hacker-proof, and access to this data could allow a malicious person to figure out where any student is likely to be at any given time.
Assuming that the university has absolutely pure intentions and perfect security, they still shouldn’t have access to this kind of information. If a student decides to stop visiting Starbucks, or to spend their entire meal plan on doughnuts, it's nobody's business but their own. College students are adults, and they have a right to go anywhere and buy anything they want without people spying on them. As a college student, I would not appreciate being dragged to an academic intervention because I've changed my shopping habits suddenly.
Also, while it is understandable that colleges would want to contact students who are likely to drop out, it should be the student’s responsibility to seek help if they feel they need it since they are adults. Learning to deal independently with your problems is part of the value of college, and it shouldn’t be taken away. Many resources are available, all the student needs to do is ask.
The college dropout rate is a serious problem that needs to be dealt with, but the solution should not be to violate students' privacy and stifle their independence.