College Students Concerned About Data Use in Higher Education, Research Shows

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A new study released on Wednesday shows that open conversations about data collection and sharing are missing from college campuses. 

Funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the study examines student perceptions of data use within higher education. Titled Keeping Student Trust, the report was created in partnership with the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators and the public policy organization New America.

The research is based on information from five focus groups with a diverse mix of 18 students who attend public and private two-year and four-year institutions.

Researchers say the key findings from the survey’s focus groups are “not generalizable to all students at all institutions.” However, they did provide “deep and insightful perspectives.” 

Questions focused on how a student’s comfort levels may change based on the type of data being collected, why the data is collected, whether a higher education institution or a third-party company was collecting data, and how data is used for COVID-19 monitoring.

In general, students from smaller campuses had more trust in their institution’s data usage and collection than students from larger institutions. All participants had significantly more trust in colleges and universities than outside companies. 

Social media monitoring also drew criticism from study participants. 

“Students mostly felt like institutions should not monitor students’ social media accounts for instances of COVID violations, but they did understand the privacy versus safety trade-off that that meant,” the study states.

Participants also indicated that some institutions are encouraging peer-to-peer monitoring of social media through a “snitch” system where students report COVID-19 safety protocol violations. 

One student said her school created a website called “[institution name] Snitch” where students can upload pictures of individuals violating safety guidelines.

Researchers listed 11 recommendations that colleges and universities can implement to institute more trust in data usage, including limiting the use of location data and being transparent about data policies.

The study says schools “should be mindful” of students’ perspectives on data usage and that transparency and communication “will go a long way toward building trust and avoiding using data in a way that makes students uncomfortable.”