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What Are 2.5 Million Names Worth?

By Jacqueline S. Chea
By The Crimson Editorial Board
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board.

The College Board’s long-standing practice of selling information on roughly 2.5 million students to almost 2,000 colleges and universities, has come under fire from experts concerned about student privacy and the commodification of admissions. The practice, in which Harvard has long taken part, includes selling the names, approximate SAT/PSAT scores, and some demographic information, including ethnicity, of individual students.

While we recognize these concerns, we believe this program is important because it can help connect high-achieving students with college opportunities they might not have known about otherwise. This is particularly true for students from underprivileged backgrounds with less institutional and familial support through the college application process. Typically, more than 60 percent of Harvard students in a given year will have had their information sold through this process, rising to over 80 percent for minority students. Overall, students who participate in the program — which is optional — are 12 percent more likely to enroll in a four-year college program.

That said, we take issue with some of the College Board’s practices more broadly. First, the commodification of students and their education cannot be overlooked. Though this program might help to facilitate fair and open communication between students and educational institutions, we cannot forget the profit motives behind the College Board’s practices. It’s not a free exchange of data after all. As a result, continued scrutiny to ensure adequate concern for student privacy is appropriate and necessary.

Second, we are concerned that College Board’s apparent monopoly on this information is not really conducive to transparency or equity of access. That begins with the business practices discussed above. But it also pertains to the beliefs of students themselves. The outreach colleges conduct using this data — particularly to students with a limited understanding of the college process, who stand to benefit the most from the program — easily lends itself to misinterpretation. These students may misunderstand outreach programs from colleges purchasing this data as promised acceptance or some kind of preferential treatment. It’s, of course, not.

In not making students aware of the ruthlessly competitive nature of college admissions, the College Board risks disadvantaging the very students this program claims to help by fostering a false sense of security. After all, it is not in the monetary interest of the College Board to dispel any misconceptions about the weight of these letters. Doing so might well diminish their value toward making students feel desirable and confident.

Still, programs that connect high-achieving students, and particularly those from underrepresented groups, are important to breaking down disparities in educational access and attainment across the United States. So far as the College Board can facilitate those connections in a way that respects the privacy and dignity of each individual student, it should continue to do so.

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

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