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How the PSAT Collects Students’ Personal Data

Many students are about to find themselves buried under a blizzard of offers, their inboxes overflowing and their counters stacked high with catalogs.

No, I am not talking about holiday catalogs, surprise gifts, or year-end donation requests. This blizzard is brought to you by that other seasonal event, the delivery of PSAT scores. Scores from the October PSAT became available online on Monday, December 10. Students can access their scores and see answers and explanations for any missed questions (all great features of the College Board collaboration with Khan Academy ). For access, students first create an online student account with College Board. And this is where the fun begins!

College Board (and ACT) accounts require students to provide basic biographical information. There are also reams of optional questions asking for student’s self-reported grade point average, classes they have taken in high school and areas of interest. Here is the full list. In entering this information, students create online profiles of themselves as, well, students. Students are then given the option of participating in the Student Search Service  ®  . What, you may ask, is the Student Search Service? From the College Board website:

Student Search Service  ®   is a free service that has helped millions of students receive valuable information from colleges and nonprofit scholarship organizations. When students take the SAT, PSAT/NMSQT, and PSAT 10, they’re asked if they want to participate.

At a practical level, what this means is that a student’s information is sold to colleges and other organizations who buy lists of student names and contact information in bulk (personal information is anonymized). A college might, for instance, wish to have a list of all the students in the dozen zip codes nearest to Washington, D.C. who have grade point averages over 3.0 and PSAT scores of 1000 or above. That college can then email or mail information to those students to introduce or “brand” itself with students and families, hoping to draw applications.

For students, this can be a convenient way to hear from and learn about a lot of unfamiliar colleges. It can also be kind of flattering. There is, however, a downside, which I will address shortly.

For colleges, participation in the Student Search Service is, at least in part, an effective “dating” service, allowing students to learn about unfamiliar colleges and maybe fall in love. There are many great colleges that students simply do not know  yet.  Cynically, the service can be also used by colleges to solicit as many applications as possible in order to lower the percentage of students it accepts, thereby improving one criterion of the  US News & World Report ’s college rankings.

Finally, for College Board, the Student Search Service is a source of revenue. The College Board states that it never sells student information. From its stated commitment to student data privacy :

  1.  Here’s the first thing to know:   The College Board collects personal information only to administer tests and deliver educational opportunities to students.
  2.  Here’s the second thing:   The College Board gives students and families complete discretion as to how much additional information they disclose, beyond the minimum information needed to connect students with college success, including registering for the SAT or saving college lists.

However, as has been widely reported, although College Board claims not to sell student information, it does allow colleges, the military and other programs to buy lists of student data for a price, currently $0.45 per name . I leave it to the reader to decide whether there is a difference in that distinction.

Washington Post education writer Valerie Strauss has one of the best looks at this practice here .

Now that you perhaps know more than you wished to about the non-test goings-on of College Board, let me offer my real concern and advice. 

Despite the unseemliness of having one’s name sold over and over by a billion dollar non-profit organization, the opportunity to learn about more colleges has value. My concern is this: We live in a world that can feel too fast-paced and therefore out of control. We all have too many emails and too many distractions. Adding a dozen or a hundred college suitors to your inbox surely will not help. But, there may be really valuable information in all of those emails.

So, my advice: make a new email address expressly for college information. You can use it for the SAT and/or the ACT. You can use it when you visit colleges. And, it may be a great time to have a more grown-up email for correspondence with college admissions folks. I have great confidence that [email protected] is more likely to be available than [email protected] and is a better foot forward than [email protected] or prettyinpink2001@….

Then, make a plan to check your “collegestuff” account on your timeline, maybe every Sunday morning. Certainly, apart from college come-ons, you will want to check regularly for registration deadlines and the like. But, having your email overly cluttered or your phone blowing up with emails from your would-be college “friends” does not make it easier to remain focused on your work as a high school student and your actual friends. And then, a year or so from now, when you are happily settled into college and can turn the page on the SAT and college applications for good, you can simply delete [email protected] and carry on with your actual friends, whether or not they, or you, are pretty in pink.

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