Who doesn’t need extra money to pay for college? Many students search for scholarships to fill the financial gap between savings, financial aid, and tuition. And the popular way to search for scholarships is to use a scholarship search engine, like Scholarships.com or Fastweb.com, which is much easier than looking up resources one by one. Students fill out a profile, are sometimes asked to create an account, and the scholarship search engine returns a long list of possible scholarships. Just make sure your student is aware of how the information they provide to scholarship search engines may be sold and profited from. You know the saying “If something seems too good to be true, it probably is”. Just know what your student will get in return for that list of scholarships – a whole lot of unwelcome marketing, both online and in your mailbox.
Collecting and Selling Student Data
Collecting student data and reselling access to the information is not uncommon in the world of scholarships and college search. In 2013, a woman in Illinois sued The College Board and ACT, Inc. for selling students’ personal information collected during test registration. The class action suit blamed the companies for selling teenagers’ personal information to other companies and colleges, in order for those outside organizations to market themselves to students. The ACT website details that it sells names and information to, “accredited postsecondary educational institutions and to scholarship agencies that offer programs of study at the postsecondary level, educational enrichment programs, or financial aid for postsecondary study,” though other agencies like ROTC and nonprofit organizations make be eligible to purchase information for $0.38 per name.
Scholarship search engines operate in much the same way as test registration and college search sites do. They collect student information during the scholarship search process—think about all of the specific demographic information your student divulged during the sign-up process in order to tailor their search. And then, at the very end of the process, there’s a checkbox asking students for their consent to “share” information with outside partners. Sometimes the checkbox means a student is choosing to opt-in and add his/her name to the marketing list for sale; and sometimes checking the box allows them to opt-out, so that their name cannot be sold. Most likely, your student was not even aware of whether they were allowing their information to be shared and sold.
Is It A Scholarship Or A Sweepstakes?
Ever wonder why there are so many “no essay” scholarships? It’s just another tactic to generate marketing leads for college search sites and ultimately colleges and related companies. If a scholarship is too easy to apply to, there’s a high likelihood that the main purpose of the “scholarship” is to collect names, emails, and marketing information. These scholarships, which by law in some states have to be called sweepstakes, are used specifically for data-mining. Unlike scholarships which are awarded based on merit, need, and demographics, no-essay scholarships are lotteries. They may seem like a quick and easy way to earn thousands of dollars for college, but your student’s data collected during the sign-up process will be sold to outside partners.
Prior to 2010 and the Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility, and Disclosure (CARD) Act, credit card companies were major purchasers of personal information lists. The CARD Act restricted the marketing of credit cards to college students. Without credit card companies as buyers, scholarship search engines now rely primarily on advertisers and universities to buy lists of student information. Advertisers resell the information to product companies to tailor online and email marketing, as a result your student receives “special offers” from a variety of companies.
Universities buy student lists from scholarship search engines in order to learn more about students who are currently applying to college. Colleges use the information on lists to send students marketing materials that make it seem like the student has been personally invited to apply to an exclusive track or program at the school. As college admittance becomes more competitive, universities are doing whatever it takes to make themselves desirable destinations for secondary education.
How Can I Protect My Student’s Data?
Maybe you’re wondering what the big deal is? So what if your student receives direct mail? Or maybe it’s not such a bad thing for a college to reach out to my child to encourage them to apply. That’s a decision you and your student should discuss. The Children’s Online Privacy Protect Act of 1998 (COPPA) only regulates the collection of online information of children under 13 years of age. That means that your middle school aged and high school aged child, though possibly under the age of 18, is fair game for data collection.
Since COPPA won’t protect your child’s privacy, it’s up to you as a parent to understand what’s going on with personal data when your child uses scholarship search engines (and other sites related to college searching). There are a few things you can do to keep your child’s data private and to limit the marketing world from easily reaching him or her.
- Teach your child to opt-out—discuss the options with your student as they begin using scholarship search engines. Make sure they understand how to read the fine print and recognize that the “sharing” of information is really the sale of personal data.
- Use scholarship search engines and apps that don’t require logins— a site like Student Scholarship Search doesn’t require an account. Your child will still fill out some demographic data like GPA and state of residency, but the information is not directly linked to them via a personal account.
- Stick to local resources—like your school guidance department and local scholarships. Avoid using scholarship search engines by focusing on local scholarships instead. Students have a better chance of winning local scholarships than larger national ones. Your school’s guidance department may also be able to point you in the direction of local community organizations and county associations that give away money for college-bound students.
It’s up to parents to protect their students and teach them how to maneuver in an online world that sees students as potential sources of revenue, rather than vulnerable children searching for ways to pay for school. This is Data Privacy Month, so take the opportunity to talk to your student about their personal information, whether or not they feel sharing their data is worth the return, and where they can find privacy policies to understand what information websites gather and how they use it.
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