Editorials

Georgetown Should Commit to Ethical Data Use

Published January 17, 2020


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Many colleges and universities have opted to begin using technologies that track the behavior of prospective and enrolled students online and on campus, respectively. This editorial board believes Georgetown should preemptively commit to the ethical use of data collection technology, both with respect to admissions and student life.

As The Washington Post reported in 2019, software is now available to college admissions offices that gives them the ability to see extensive information about prospective students visiting their website. By analyzing internet “cookies” from students’ web browsers, the software is capable of identifying a prospective student’s name, hometown, contact information, ethnicity, and much more. This type of admissions software, which admittedly could save time in inviting students to apply, is ripe for misuse.

According to a 2017 New York Times study, 21 percent of Georgetown students come from the top 1 percent of Americans in terms of annual income, while less than 3 percent of students come from the bottom 20 percent. In fact, more students at Georgetown come from the top 1 percent than the bottom 60 percent. Systems that inform the admissions office of prospective students visiting their website will further advantage high schools and geographic regions that have produced past generations of Georgetown students, exacerbating the narrow range of income and race demographics the school currently admits. It is imperative for promoting a diverse student body that Georgetown takes action to reach out to students who may not have the luxury of guidance counselors or family members promoting the university.

Because Georgetown has expressed its desire for diverse applicants, it is the university’s obligation to reach out to communities who have previously been underrepresented on campus. A 2013 Harvard study showed that students who are sent information about schools are more likely to apply. Georgetown should adopt this strategy to invite a diverse candidate pool to apply rather than focusing on students who are already aware of and interested in the school. Recklessly adopting software to assist admissions without understanding its possible repercussions could prove harmful to Georgetown’s stated efforts to enroll a diverse student body.

Questionable data use goes beyond the admissions processes at some universities. Some schools have installed programs that allow administrators to monitor students’ on-campus locations using Bluetooth or Wi-Fi connections. Proponents of these technologies claim they will help professors enforce attendance policies, identify symptoms of depression by monitoring when students are eating and sleeping, and allow universities to create a “model” for successful student behavior—but software designed to track students’ locations on campus is an unacceptable invasion of privacy.

The concerns—such as student attendance—can undoubtedly be mitigated via less intrusive methods. In-class clicker systems and good-old-fashioned clipboard attendance are not so ineffective as to necessitate a 24/7 monitoring system. And it’s important to mention that these systems fail. Degree Analytics, one company being used for attendance tracking software, describes their program to be “on average between 90 and 95” percent accurate. The reality that attendance is at times being improperly counted entirely negates this system’s purported benefits, as students’ grades could be impacted by software glitches, not to mention some students may not own smartphones compatible with the program itself.

Further, the claim that tracking students could in turn help the administration diagnose mental health problems in individual students is dubious at best. The aggregate psychological effect of surveilling the student population will not advance positive mental health and perhaps even contribute to a decline. Big Brother is a poor replacement for accessible, medically necessary mental health services.

One monitoring program requires students to download an app to their phone in order for the tracking to take effect. Its proponents have argued that this constitutes knowing consent that their information will be available to school administrators. However, tying required university activities such as class attendance to the monitoring program will inevitably result in the software being mandatory for students in certain classes, undercutting the notion that students could consent to such a program.

Tech companies have been under fire of late for deceptive and potentially illegal behavior with regard to tracking user data, specifically location. The European Consumer Organisation filed complaints against Google alleging the company intentionally obfuscated whether devices were being tracked and what user data they stored. Facebook is notorious for overreaching in the collection and distribution of users’ information. As the international debate around data ethics unfolds, Georgetown ought to err on the side of caution.

Student data tracking programs like those mentioned will continue to proliferate. Evaluating potential Georgetown applicants based on material not explicitly submitted in their application is antithetical to the school’s commitment to holistic review. In the interests of Georgetown students, both current and prospective, as well as the stated policy goals of the university, we urge the university to proceed thoughtfully before automating admissions processes or analysis of student behavior.


Editorial Board
The Editorial Board is the official opinion of the Georgetown Voice. Its current composition can be found on the masthead.


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