Student Profiling and Student Surveys
Students' personal information is often collected through in-school surveys, sometimes for commercial use. Congress most recently addressed such surveys in the No Child Left Behind Act, a broad federal educational act. The Act provides parents and students the right to be notified of, and consent to, the collection of student information. However, the Act includes many exceptions to this right.
American Student List (ASL) sells databases of children's names in grades K-12 overlaid with data on sex, age, whether they own a telephone, income, religion, and their race or ethnicity. This information is often gleaned from surveys that are administered while children are in school under the pretense of college admissions and other education-related purposes. Students and parents do not know that their personal information is being used for the secondary purpose of marketing. The data is used for hawking credit cards, catalog items, magazines, student "recognition" products, and job recruitment. This image of ASL data comes from the SRDS Direct Marketing List Manual, a list of marketing lists. It is not available online, but one can often find it in a library.
Student "recognition" products, such as "Who's Who Among American High School Students" and the "National Dean's List" have a strong marketing function. Information collected in composing both directories is used for marketing a wide variety of products wholly unrelated to education. And, although teachers and administrators are encouraged to nominate students and transfer data to the company, the reality is that a growing number of employers and colleges don't consider such recognition directories as meritorious.
In October 2002, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) settled cases against ASL and the National Research Center for College and University Admissions (NRCCUA) for collecting personal information from children using deceptive practices. The FTC complaint alleged that the companies operated a scheme to cull marketing data from student through surveys administered under the pretense of college admissions and scholarship opportunities.
NRCCUA sent letters to schools asking teachers to dedicate classroom time to administering detailed surveys for college admissions and financial aid purposes. These "Post-Secondary Planning" surveys elicited detailed personal information from students, including their religious affiliation, personal interests, and social attitudes. The surveys did have a privacy notice, but the language implied that the information was for educational purposes only. NRCCUA marketed the information collected to higher education institutions, but also shared the information with ASL, which used the data for direct marketing.
In August 2002, the New York Attorney General filed suit against Student Marketing Group (SMG), a company that collected information from students for direct marketing. The company was alleged to have formed a non-profit subsidiary, Educational Research Center of America (ERCA) which sent millions of surveys to high schools to collect information for college financial aid and scholarship opportunities. ERCA, without notice to the schools or students, was also using the information for direct marketing of magazines, credit cards, and other items. In January 2003, SMG and ERCA settled the New York Attorney General's case, and a separate investigation brought by the Federal Trade Commission.
Student profiling does not end with grade school. Profilers collect and use information from students in higher education as well. College students are targeted for magazine subscriptions, student "recognition" programs, credit cards, insurance solicitations, long distance plans, toys, cell phone plans, mail-order food, and other products. Often, college students' personal information is obtained through the institution itself. Institutions may reveal students' contact and activities (club membership) information through student directories, joint marketing agreements, or through state open records acts that require the release of enrollment lists.
- FOIA documents obtained from the Department of Education (PDF 1.1M). These documents were obtained in summer 2004 and pertain to compliance with student privacy protections afforded by No Child Left Behind.
- Student Marketing Group Consent Order, New York Attorney General, January 2003.
- Student Survey Companies Settle FTC Charges, FTC Press Release, January 29, 2003.
- FTC Eyes 'Educational' Marketers, Wired, January 3, 2003.
- Long Island "Educational Survey" Firm Agrees to Halt Deceptive Practices, New York Attorney General, January 29, 2003.
- Sallie Mae's Definition of Success Student Loan Firm Hopes to Capitalize on Customer Base With Marketing Partnerships, Washington Post, January 7, 2002.
- Daniel Golden, College-Survey Firm Quietly Peddles Student Information to Big Marketer, Wall Street Journal (Dec. 3, 2001).
- ASL Marketing: Markets data on teens, college students and their parents.
- Dunhill's College Students: "This is a comprehensive list of students currently attending a four-year college or university."
- Dunhill's High School Students "Select high school students by class year, age, with head of household income, mail order buyer, and computer owner."
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Privacy Law Sourcebook (2016)