EXCLUSIVE: Slew of College Students’ Private Info Shared With 3rd Parties for Political Research

EXCLUSIVE: Slew of College Students’ Private Info Shared With 3rd Parties for Political Research
Students walk near Royce Hall on the campus of UCLA in Los Angeles on April 23, 2012. (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
Beth Brelje

There are no parent-teacher conferences in college.

If a parent wants to know their student’s grades, the status of their student’s meal plan, or if they have dropped out of school without telling anyone, the school needs signed permission from the student and a personal identification number from the parent. Without that, because of the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), the school can tell parents next to nothing.

Without explicit student permission, this strict privacy policy prevents parents from knowing what classes a student is taking, even if parents are footing the bill.

Yet many colleges are freely handing over troves of FERPA-protected information to be analyzed for political research, in exchange for a short report that measures the success of campus voter registration activities.

The report, released in federal election years, is called the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement (NSLVE), and is a project of Tufts University’s Institute for Democracy and Higher Education (IDHE) in Medford, Massachusetts.

Privacy Protections

According to FERPA, there are only three conditions under which a college or university can share personally identifiable information from a student’s education record without the student’s consent.

Disclosures are allowed if the information is being given to organizations conducting studies for, or on behalf of, educational agencies or institutions to: develop, validate, or administer predictive tests; administer student aid programs; and improve instruction.

Nancy Thomas, IDHE director at the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University, told The Epoch Times via email that the NSLVE falls within the “studies exception” to FERPA.

“Its purpose is to improve student learning,” Ms. Thomas said. “If you review our website, you will see dozens of documents about educating for democracy year-round, not just during an election season, and using elections as that ’teachable moment' for students as responsible citizens in a democracy. We do other research on learning conditions for civic learning. We help campuses understand and use their NSLVE reports, but we always stress the educational value of this information.”

A newly released report by Verity Vote says the study has a political purpose.

Verity Vote is a group of citizen volunteers with backgrounds in professional data research and investigation who started reviewing elections and election procedures throughout the country in 2020.

“Within the last decade, the youth vote has emerged as a significant determinant in elections,” the Verity Vote report says.

“Youth turnout has been increasing and their support for Democrats is also growing. In 2022, the youth vote gave a +28 percent margin to Democrats. There are many factors that contribute to the disparity, but records show that Democrats could be gaining a systemic advantage through access to the best student data that money can’t buy.”

Personal Data on the Move

The most desirable of unregistered voters, young people are largely absent from commercial data files, the Verity Vote report says.

Young people are hard to find. They tend to be more transient, and many have no credit history and no utilities in their name—two primary sources of commercial data. But lists of these potential, but unregistered, voters do exist.

In the enrollment process at a community college, trade school, or larger college or university, a student discloses a lot of personal information to the institution.

Here’s how student data moves.

Institutions share student information with the National Student Clearinghouse, a nonprofit and nongovernmental organization that provides transcripts and financial aid services. Ninety-seven percent of post-secondary schools and more than 70 percent of high schools in the United States share data with the Clearinghouse.

What’s unexpected for most students is the NSLVE asking institutions across the nation to sign an authorization form (pdf) instructing the Clearinghouse to use the institutions’ collection of FERPA-protected student enrollment data for participation in the survey.
In total, 1,254 institutions have signed the NSLVE authorization. Tufts has an online database on which users can search for participating campuses.

Revealing Potential Voters

The current authorization form for schools has been extended to 10 years, meaning a 2023 authorization will last until 2033.

The authorization form informs institutions that IDHE has a contract with a “third-party vendor” that collects public voter registration and voting records nationally. The third-party vendor collects data such as whether an individual registered to vote, whether they voted, their voting method, and where they voted.

The third-party vendor that provides the voter registration lists is L2 Inc., a Washington State voter data and technology firm that provides a data mapping platform that “helps local, state and federal campaign managers, candidates and consultants learn about their district and target the voters most likely to help them win,” according to its website.

When the study launched in 2013, NSLVE used the company Catalist as its source for voting records, but it switched to L2 in 2018, Ms. Thomas said.

Once the Clearinghouse has two lists—the L2 voter registration list and the list of student data from most higher education institutions—it compares those lists; new data showing young people who have and haven’t registered to vote are revealed.

A list of young people who haven’t voted is valuable, Verity Vote says, because they were previously invisible to political data aggregators.

The authorization form for participation in the NSLVE describes how the data are used.

“The Clearinghouse will follow IDHE’s instructions in matching student name, date of birth, and address with public voter registration and voting records. The Clearinghouse will then append some or all of the following data elements, as reported by the institution in its Clearinghouse enrollment data, de-identify the resulting files, and send the de-identified files to IDHE for analysis: age at election, age eligibility flag, birth year, home zip code, class, program level, major ... gender, race, enrollment status, degree-seeking status, school code, and campus city and state,” the authorization form says.

“IDHE will use this dataset to study student registration and voting rates, along with comparisons with appropriate reference groups.”

Organization Says Personal Data Protected

Once the Clearinghouse compares the two lists, the NSLVE gets the data—now scrubbed of personal information—back from the Clearinghouse, and a report is written for each institution.

The authorization form also allows IDHE to provide access to its enrollment data obtained from the Clearinghouse, in de-identified form, to outside researchers to produce additional research regarding improving instruction, student civic learning, and engagement in democracy.

The authorization form describes how it will handle privacy concerns.

“The Clearinghouse agrees to destroy all personally identifiable information (PII) received from the Institution when it is no longer needed for the purpose for which the study is being conducted, except for PII which is duplicative of other records which were already in the possession of the Clearinghouse prior to the NSLVE study. Such data destruction shall occur within one year after the final report under the study has been provided to the Institution, unless extended by mutual agreement between the Parties.”

Ms. Thomas said that the process keeps student data protected.

“Neither NSLVE nor Tufts University receives students’ personal data in this process,” she said.

“To match with a voter file, we need to use name, address, and date of birth. That process is managed by the Clearinghouse and L2. Once the match has been made, the data file is de-identified by the Clearinghouse before it comes to us. We do not receive any names or other information that would enable us to identify individual students. If what is called a ‘cell size’ of data (meaning the number) is small, we receive an asterisk (*). To be clear, we do not want to know individual students, nor can we through this process.”

The Report

Sharing all of this student data gets the institutions a custom NSLVE report.

The 2022 Washington State University report is 18 pages long. It looks at student voter participation rates for the campus from 2014–2020. In that time, Washington State had more students enrolled year-over-year, registered more students to vote year-over-year, and saw more students show up at the polls year-over-year.

Student voters are classified by race, voting method (such as in-person or early voting), age, gender, education level, and field of study.

Beth Brelje is an award-winning Epoch Times reporter who covers U.S. politics, state news, and national issues. Ms. Brelje previously worked in radio for 20 years and after moving to print, worked at Pocono Record and Reading Eagle. Send her your story ideas: [email protected]
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