Big Data in College Admissions – Is This Wrong?

As described in this article from Fast Company, Wichita State University is using Big Data analytics in its recruiting and admissions program.  IBM is using Wichita State’s Big Data program as a case study in a White Paper you can find here.

I like this quote in the IBM White Paper, attributed to David Wright, Assistant Vice-President for Strategic Planning and Business Intelligence:

Ultimately, business analytics helps our students succeed by matching them closely to the courses that we predict will go well for them, which is healthy for their careers and healthy for our long-term future.

I get this:

Managing the business affairs of WSU requires attention to both academic standards and financial stability, and the two are closely linked.

I’m concerned about this:

Predicts the chances of success for potential students, enabling marketing teams to focus on high-quality applicants.

I’m always concerned when I see Big Data predictive tools used as a screening tool with respect to people.  I’m concerned about false certainty, asking the wrong questions and most importantly the intent behind the analysis.

Sooner or later some school is going to get caught using Big Data analytics to weed out applicants for unlawful reasons.  

In the meantime, there is at least one more legal issue to think about here.   

Schools using Big Data in their admissions practices or to develop their admissions practices will need to understand how their use of Big Data affects those practices.  Then they will need to consider whether, in that light, they are accurately communicating their admissions standards and practices to applicants. 

Here’s an example of what I mean.  Although not a case of Big Data abuse, consider what George Washington University has been doing as described here.  Apparently George Washington has been basing admission decisions on ability to pay, while at the same time asserting that their admissions process is needs blind.

George Washington might have been within its rights to discriminate in its application based on ability to pay – but the lack of candor is a problem.  What George Washington did was take money for applications doomed to fail.  That the applicants had financial needs obviously makes it worse.  I think the Federal Trade Commission would call it fraud.  


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