Education

USC has been tracking website visitors to help boost enrollment

The University of South Carolina has been tracking those who visit its website to better target potential students, documents show.

Those who visit USC’s website, sc.edu, can expect the pages they visit and the time spent on each page to be extracted using “cookies” and packaged in a data file.

“Tools like these help colleges and universities be more efficient and effective, reach specific enrollment goals and better serve prospective students,” USC spokesman Jeff Stensland said.

Since 2017, USC has paid Capture, LLC, which is based in Louisville, K.Y., $170,000 to collect and package the data, according to USC’s online spending transparency website. Capture is contracted to continue collecting the data until March 2021.

Digital “cookies” are chunks of code websites use to track how users interact with websites. For example, websites use cookies to keep track of what is in a user’s “shopping cart” when shopping online. Without cookies, the shopping cart would reset every time the user clicked another link, according to an article from Norton, a cybersecurity company.

Many websites use cookies, including The State.

Originally, USC used Capture’s data only to project enrollment, Stensland said. An article on Capture’s website said it predicted USC’s 2018 enrollment with 99 percent accuracy.

Starting this summer USC began tracking individuals’ web traffic on USC’s sites.

A promotion for the company’s products show a dashboard where college recruiters can see a site visitor’s name, picture, email and approximate location.

“Capture helps colleges to provide relevant information that engages and informs prospective students,” Capture spokesman Jim Davidson said in an email. Colleges then use that information to send “specific information about programs or courses of study that are relevant to potential students,” Davidson said.

According to a Capture promotional video, here is what the tool, which the company abbreviates “CBE,” does:

As visitors engage with your website, CBE gathers behavioral data and triggers targeted and highly-converting content based on that behavior. When CBE identifies a visitor, it connects their identity and demographic information with their site visit history and future site visits. Leveraging this wealth of influential behavior data, CBE is able to generate a robust portrait of each prospect.”

The company also tells USC the amount of financial aid USC would need to offer to potentially recruit a given student, according to an article on Capture’s website.

While some schools who use this, or a similar service, use the results in determining admission, USC does not, Stensland said.

“Website traffic and clicks are not used to evaluate students for admissions purposes,” Stensland said.

Those who visit USC’s website can opt out of being tracked by blocking or limiting cookies in their browser, Stensland said. The way to block or limit cookies varies based on the type of browser that’s being used.

“Capture helps our recruitment efforts by letting us know what students are looking for on our site and what they’re drilling down to in their search for information,” USC spokesman Jeff Stensland said. ”The goal is to gain insight about what kinds of questions our students and prospective students have, which will help us better communicate with them.”

USC is far from the only school to have such an agreement. In fact, the original, official contract signed by USC board of trustee secretary Cantey Heath had “the Commonwealth of Kentucky,” “County of Jefferson” and a Kentucky court district typed in, but later crossed out with a pen or pencil. On the document’s margins were “State of South Carolina and “Richland” hand-written in with hand-drawn arrows to replace the Kentucky-centric text.

A recent report by The Washington Post found at least 44 schools throughout the country use this service or one similar to it. In that report, experts raised concerns about whether or not the practice would violate educational privacy laws.

In USC’s contract with Capture, it is clear that Capture has permission to obtain protected data.

“(USC) will permit Capture to collect from (USC’s) website data regarding students and prospective students of (USC), including without limitation students’ and prospective students’ ‘personally identifiable information’ and ‘education records’ as defined by The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.”

Davidson would not say what kind of personal information Capture collects, but said all data collections were consistent with the law.

Personally identifiable information is defined to include name, address, Social Security number, phone number, email address, race, religion, weight, medical information, financial information and more, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s website.

However, the contract explicitly forbids Capture from selling data collected about individuals.

“Capture shall not share or sell any student data identifying any individual student or prospective student of (USC) or any third party,” according to the contract.

Tracking students’ online data is one of several new-age recruitment tools USC has been using to recruit and weigh applicants. Applicants who began school this fall were, in part, assessed using the College Board’s Environmental Context Dashboard — now rebranded as “landscape” — which assigns students a “disadvantage level” based on the student’s neighborhood crime rates, median income and rate at which AP tests are taken, according to a previous article from The State.

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Lucas Daprile has been covering the University of South Carolina and higher education since March 2018. Before working for The State, he graduated from Ohio University and worked as an investigative reporter at TCPalm in Stuart, FL. There, where he won multiple awards from the Society of Professional Journalists for his political and environmental coverage.
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