The Clark Website Uses Cookies to Track Users

Claire McMahon, Scarlet Staff

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Clark University is now one of 44 colleges in the United States that tracks prospective students who visit the school’s website and also engage in email correspondence with the school.

Internet servers have long used cookies and collections of data to identify and track users. When someone visits a website it installs “cookies” in the web browser to store information about the user.

University websites use these pieces of data to retain information about prospective and current students. Different schools store varying amounts of information about their users depending on their purpose in using the technology.

Some of the information that schools obtain is the number of pages that a user visits on their website, the amount of time that the user spends on each page, and the geographical location from which the user is accessing the site.

Some schools also calculate an index for the perceived interests that are specific to users have in their school based on the frequency at which they visit the website, email correspondence, the pages they visit, and other factors. The purpose of this measurement is to determine the likelihood that a prospective student will apply and accept an offer of admission.

According to Meredith Twombly, Vice President for Admissions and Financial Aid at Clark, the Clark’s admissions team uses tracking technology to compile a database of people to email, determine whether or not they open emails, logins and correspondence, and track users’ activity on the website.

The Clark Admissions department has been using a customer relations management platform known as Slate for almost a decade. Slate enables the Clark server to track and store email activity. One of the primary purposes of this program is to keep track of financial aid packages.

This year, Clark University began a collaboration with Capture Higher Ed, an admissions consulting firm. This platform allows the admissions team to provide users with more information related to the web pages that they frequently visit and to tailor pop-up ads.

Nevertheless, the use of technology to monitor people’s activity inevitably raises ethical questions. Clark’s Admissions department expressed an awareness of the ethical implications of using these tools.

Twombly shared her assessment of the ethical side of these practices. “Well, first of all, I’d say we always have the opportunity to do unethical things in admissions, and we didn’t need the internet to have those opportunities. So it’s always going to come down to the university and the leadership to do the right thing.”

Twombly expressed that if she wouldn’t feel comfortable explaining how she uses a certain method to a student, a parent, her boss, a board member, or a reporter, then she should not be using it or should at least reconsider the way in which it is being used.

The Clark Admissions department receives daily reports from Capture Higher Ed that includes an aggregation of data about general visitor activity on the website.

“The whole idea is to serve them better and to engage them better. So it’s not ‘spying’ the way people do tend to categorize it as spying. It really is about engagement, service, and using our web more effectively as an engagement tool rather than just a static tool,” Twombly explained.

Many schools do not disclose in their privacy policies that they collect information from their users, which has led to controversy. According to a report by the Washington Post, fewer than 10 percent of schools, who use tracking software technology, indicate in their privacy policies the purpose of tracking their users.

Clark’s privacy policy lists the information that the system collects and the reasons that it collects this information. First-time users of the Clark University website have the option to agree to Clark’s “cookie policy,” which outlines the types of cookies used by the site and their purposes.

Some schools use the information that they obtain to determine whether or not a prospective student would be a good fit for the school. However, Clark reportedly uses tracking technology exclusively to enhance a user’s experience.

“We’re not using it as admission counselors, we’re not using it to decide whether or not to admit a student,” said Twombly. “We’re really using it to market more effectively. In my mind, this is a marketing budget item.”