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Are Students Needlessly Giving Away Personal Information During Their College Hunt?

By using online price calculators to estimate the cost of college, students may be sharing their private information with potential vendors -- without knowing it.

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That is not to say that colleges cannot ask for contact information or save the data collected for further analysis. But any request for identifying information should be accompanied by a clear statement describing the use of that information, as well as how contact information will be connected to the financial information provided through the calculator. To evaluate the protections afforded through net price calculators, policymakers should reflect on these key questions:

  •  Does the calculator ask for identifying information such as name, address, phone number, or birth date?
  • Does the calculator make clear which pieces of information are optional and which are essential to completing a cost estimate?
  • Does the calculator clearly disclose all of the ways in which the data will be stored and used, or does it link to a generic privacy policy?
  • Who owns the data—the college itself or the vendor who developed the calculator? Is this clearly disclosed to the user? What are the implications of data ownership by vendors?
  • Are there sufficient protections for users under the age of 18?
  • Do the guidelines for net price calculators sufficiently prohibit or discourage the sale of information to lead generators, private lenders, or other companies?

There is an emerging consensus among higher education policymakers that students will benefit most from customized college information sources that take into account individual circumstances. This may well be true—in fact, CAP’s own research suggests that students want more customization in their college information sources. But each time the federal government mandates or encourages tools that use students’ personal data, the issue of privacy and the potential for misuse will arise. Policymakers should use the rise in net price calculators as an opportunity to consider how they can ensure that students get more out of these tools than they give up.

Julie Margetta Morgan is the Associate Director of Postsecondary Education at the Center for American Progress.