SUNY-ESF ends contract with data-tracking firm

Bizar Male

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SUNY-ESF has ended an agreement with a firm that used internet software to collect data on prospective students, a university spokesperson confirmed.

The agreement with Capture Higher Ed, an admissions consulting firm — which lasted from January 31, 2019 to January 31, 2020 — allowed the company to install tracking software on SUNY-ESF’s website that gathered data on prospective students. The college paid $32,500 for Capture’s services.

SUNY-ESF installed code that gathers visitor data and listed the private company as a “school official” with “legitimate educational interests” to provide the firm with data protected under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, according to a previously obtained copy of the contract. FERPA restricts the amount of information about students that schools receiving federal funding can release.

Capture would provide analysis on frequently visited pages on SUNY-ESF’s website and provide design and copywriting for 20 marketing campaigns to “influence undergraduate prospects’ actions.”

“Given our recruitment strategy, it didn’t make sense to continue with Capture and the contract wasn’t renewed,” a SUNY-ESF spokesperson said in a statement last week.

Capture is one of several firms that partners with colleges and universities to install tracking software on their websites. A Washington Post investigation in October 2019 found that SUNY-ESF is one of at least 44 colleges and universities that partnered with Capture and Ruffalo Noel Levitz, another high-profile data firm, to track prospective students’ web activity and make predictions on who is most likely to enroll.


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Data firms used by colleges and universities can potentially worsen disparities in access to higher education, according to The Post’s investigation. In some cases, firms rank prospective students based on how likely they are to enroll and if they will need financial aid to fill potential revenue gaps.

Some colleges use data tracking to recruit students who can afford to pay full tuition, according to The Post. Other collected data ranges from ZIP code and hometown to purchasing behavior and distance from campus.

Emails between Capture and a SUNY-ESF admissions director, also obtained in 2019, show Capture’s daily visitor information reports, which includes visitors’ enrollment years, location and “status,” along with what pages they visited on the college’s website.

SUNY-ESF’s privacy policy at the time said that the school does not use cookies. Now, it says that it uses cookies for “stored login sessions and analytical purposes.”

Capture also agreed it would not share its data with any third parties “except as required by this Agreement or as otherwise required by law,” according to the contract.

“We learned from the experience with Capture and built our internal resources to better reach students and (provide) information of the educational excellence at ESF,” the spokesperson said in a statement Friday.

After The D.O. reported on the agreement in 2019, a SUNY-ESF spokesperson said they were “reviewing the need to continue the contract.”

Other universities in New York state that use cookies or firms to gather data include SUNY Buffalo, Cooper Union, Dominican College and SUNY Maritime College, according to a list by The Post.

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