Oct 28 2021

EDUCAUSE 2021: What Do College Students Really Think of Data Privacy?

Students want agency and transparency from their schools’ data collection practices.

How much do college students know about how their data is collected and used, and how much do they care? That’s exactly what researchers from the Future of Privacy Forum uncovered in its “College Students’ Attitudes Toward Data Privacy” report.

Through an online survey developed and deployed in collaboration with Cornell University’s Survey Research Institute, 1,500 college students were asked about their views on data privacy at their institutions. Researchers also conducted 17 Zoom interviews with students to gain further insights into their data privacy attitudes.

Claire Fontaine, a consultant for CMF Advisors, presented the study in a recent session at this year’s EDUCAUSE Annual Conference titled “Trust, Comfort, & Concerns: College Students’ Views of Data Privacy.”

  • Seventy-one percent of survey respondents believe they should have the right to control how their colleges use data about them.
  • Seventy percent of survey respondents trust their colleges or universities to protect their personal information.
  • Sixty-one percent trust their schools’ learning and advising management systems to protect their personal information.
  • Forty-seven percent trust the technology platforms their schools use for remote learning to protect their personal information.
  • Students who identify as nonbinary are less comfortable with their schools collecting facial recognition data than those who identify as male or female.
  • Students who self-identify as having mental health disorders are less comfortable having data used to measure how well they are paying attention in class or to ensure they are not cheating during online exams than those who do not.

DIVE DEEPER: What's the difference between security, privacy and confidentiality?

Giving Students Agency Over Their Data Can Be Empowering

On the qualitative side, students repeated a few sentiments. One was a perceived lack of agency over their data.

“I try not to let data collection affect me, because there’s nothing I can really do about it,” one student said.

But the reality, experts say, is that data collection does impact students, which is why data privacy concerns are real and important.

As the University of California San Diego’s first campus privacy officer, Pegah Parsi spearheads the privacy and data protection efforts for the university’s research, educational and service enterprise. Because she is passionate about data ethics and privacy, she impresses upon students the importance of data privacy as a civil liberties issue.

Kyle Jones
We should give students much more credit with where their privacy literacy actually is.”

Kyle Jones Assistant Professor, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis

“I tell people that they should care about privacy because it’s not just about confidentiality and keeping things walled off,” Parsi said, “It’s about having agency, having control and autonomy over themselves and what happens to them.”

For Kyle Jones, assistant professor in the Department of Library and Information Science within the School of Informatics and Computing at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, data privacy is instrumental to the educational process.

“It enables students to engage with ideas, values and viewpoints in ways that protect them when they do so,” he said, “It allows students to explore those things, and that’s what higher education is about. It’s about exploration of viewpoints, concepts and theories in a way that allows you to learn without influence, without redirection toward goals and ends that are not your own as a student.”

Administrators, CIOs and professors should all share in the common goal of protecting data privacy, Jones said, because it allows students to be the best they can be.

Data Privacy Goes Beyond the IT Department

Student respondents also expressed a desire for transparency and context in their schools’ data collection practices.

“I would just specify everything that’s going on, like, ‘Here we’re going to use your data for the betterment of the community,’” one student said. “We can promise you that X, Y and Z aren’t going to happen.’ I just want it to be very specific.”

Jones said most universities don’t readily share data collection and usage information, but they should.

“We should give students much more credit with where their privacy literacy actually is and allow them to be agents in the decisions that we make about privacy at the institutional level,” Jones said. “When it comes down to it, students really don’t have much control over their privacy. I believe, based on law and institutional policy, we have set it up that way. Now the students are coming back and saying, ‘I’m not actually OK with that. I want to have more choice in these things,’ and we should respect that to the extent that we can.”

EXPLORE: See how universities are protecting both privacy and security.

Parsi said getting the students involved in privacy conversations goes a long way in education and empowerment.

“In all of our governance structures that involve privacy, I make absolutely sure we have the student leadership as part of that process and that decision,” she said. She also conducts privacy trainings that are open to anyone, including students.

Parsi often speaks to classes across academic disciplines on the topic of data privacy, and noted that many professors are now including privacy conversations in their syllabi.

“The most important thing I can do is training and awareness to get people to understand and at least start speaking the same language,” Parsi said, “so the students can express their preferences in a meaningful way, so we’re all speaking the same language when we talk about privacy.”

Find more coverage of EDUCAUSE 2021, including more interviews and advice from higher ed experts, here.

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