College prep software Naviance sells advertising data on millions of students

For practically two-thirds of American excessive schoolers Naviance software program is an integral and practically unavoidable a part of the school analysis and software course of. For schools and universities, it’s additionally a focused promoting platform with a captive viewers of thousands and thousands of scholars trying to make one of many largest monetary investments of their lives.

The Markup examined the Naviance accounts of a number of college students who granted us entry and reviewed contracts between 10 universities and Intersect, a sister firm to Naviance liable for promoting promoting campaigns on the platform. We uncovered how Naviance gathers knowledge by way of its school steerage software program after which permits schools and universities to focus on college students with paid ads encouraging them to enroll. 

The platform permits admissions officers to pick what varieties of scholars will see their recruiting messages based mostly on the scholars’ location, tutorial “capability,” the majors they’re involved in, and even their race. In a single occasion, The Markup discovered a college that intentionally marketed solely to White college students by way of Naviance. A number of different faculties used the platform to focus on college students of all races in some states however solely White college students in others.

The software program has turn out to be ubiquitous within the school search course of. Greater than 10 million college students use it to submit their school functions, request trainer suggestions, and submit transcripts. They analysis schools and universities utilizing Naviance’s SuperMatch characteristic, which calculates a “match rating” designed to point out college students how effectively aligned they’re with a selected college. 

They use the software program’s scattergram characteristic to match their check scores and GPAs to beforehand admitted college students from their very own highschool. And so they obtain messages by way of Naviance about faculties that could be good matches for them.

A few of these messages, The Markup discovered, are literally paid ads from the faculties. 

“There’s some social engineering at play that feels actually regarding,” mentioned Ceceilia Parnther, a St. John’s College professor who research increased schooling management. “I see it being an digital type of gatekeeping.”

Naviance and Intersect are owned by PowerSchool and are key elements of an ed tech empire—largely owned by the personal fairness agency Vista Fairness Companions—that’s exerting important affect over college students from kindergarten by way of school commencement. 

PowerSchool declined to reply lots of The Markup’s questions for this story, however in a short e mail, Darron Flagg, the corporate’s chief compliance and privateness officer, wrote that the characteristic that enables schools to focus on college students with ads based mostly on their race was phased out in 2019—two years earlier than PowerSchool acquired the businesses. 

There’s some social engineering at play that feels actually regarding.”

– Ceceilia Parnther, St. John’s College

“The Intersect product doesn’t enable matching standards that excludes under-represented pupil teams,” Flagg wrote in an e mail.

That assertion is instantly contradicted by paperwork The Markup obtained by way of public data requests.

College students The Markup spoke to for this story mentioned they felt misled and had typically been confused about why they have been receiving messages by way of Naviance from faculties during which that they had expressed no curiosity.

“I believed the outcomes I used to be getting have been actually bizarre,” mentioned Alexandra Raphling, a senior at Santa Monica Excessive Faculty, in California. “They weren’t in keeping with my grades, they weren’t in keeping with what I put in [as search criteria].… It type of simply reveals that Naviance doesn’t have the very best curiosity of scholars utilizing the software program at coronary heart.”

Race-based ads

In August 2021, the College of California San Diego bought an promoting marketing campaign by way of Intersect that allowed it to ship focused messages by way of Naviance to college students who had used the platform to analysis competitor establishments—as designated by UC San Diego—and to “racial or ethnic minorities,” in response to a contract obtained by The Markup.

The $142,000 contract features a marketing campaign that particularly targets “racial or ethnic minorities” in California who used Naviance to analysis the College of Southern California, Arizona State College, or UC Irvine.(See the paperwork right here.)

UC San Diego declined to remark.

The contract is about to run till 2023. It was signed 5 months after PowerSchool acquired Naviance and two years after the race-based concentrating on characteristic was supposedly phased out.

The Markup obtained contracts exhibiting focused promoting campaigns from 9 different universities.

Along with their contracts, Metropolis Schools of Chicago and Northern Illinois College offered person manuals, copyrighted 2020, that specify how college officers can choose from “variety filters” when choosing which college students will see their recruiting advertisements. Metropolis Schools of Chicago additionally offered an Intersect demonstration video that reveals a narrator choosing from a listing of racial identities and unclicking a field labeled “American Indian or Alaska Native”—that means college students who establish as members of these teams wouldn’t obtain recruiting messages from the college.

The Intersect web site at present states that shoppers can use the service to “discover college students who match particular demographic variables (race, ethnicity, geography, class yr, attendance at an under-represented college) and current messages about your establishment to college students who possess these traits.”

When The Markup introduced its findings to PowerSchool and requested about Flagg’s earlier feedback, spokesperson Madeline Willman wrote in an e mail, “PowerSchool stands by what has been offered as factual.”

Contracts from the College of Kansas present how the focused promoting service the businesses market as a way to extend pupil physique variety can really be used to do the other.

In 2015, for instance, the college paid for a year-long Naviance promoting marketing campaign that focused solely White college students in Kansas, Texas, and Minnesota. 

That buy occurred earlier than PowerSchool acquired Naviance, however the College of Kansas continued to make use of Naviance-targeted advertisements by way of a minimum of June 2021. The later contracts don’t specify whether or not the college focused college students based mostly on race, and the College of Kansas didn’t reply to requests for remark.

In 2016, the College of Maine bought a Naviance marketing campaign that focused White, Black, and Hispanic college students in Massachusetts. However its advert campaigns in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont focused solely White college students, in response to contracts obtained by way of public data requests. The college didn’t reply to requests for remark.

The identical yr, the College of Massachusetts Boston bought Naviance promoting aimed toward each White and “different” college students in New Jersey and New York. However in Connecticut and New Hampshire, it focused solely White college students. 

“UMass Boston makes use of many recruiting methods … to achieve high-school-aged college students with an goal towards rising variety in our pupil physique,” DeWayne Lehman, a spokesperson for the college, wrote in an e mail. He didn’t reply questions on why the college would goal solely White college students in sure states.

“You may just about not escape”

Many schools and universities have historically directed their ads utilizing lists of potential pupil names bought from the ACT and from the School Board, which administers the SAT. However fewer highschool college students are taking these standardized exams.

In lots of locations, the exams have been canceled due to COVID-19. And even earlier than the pandemic, universities have been adopting test-optional software insurance policies that didn’t require college students to submit check scores. Because of this, faculties have been looking for new sources of knowledge to gasoline their advertising. 

EAB—which is owned by Vista Fairness Companions, the identical agency that holds a big stake in Naviance’s mother or father firm, PowerSchool—is at present the unique reseller of Intersect’s focused promoting service. In its advertising materials, EAB has introduced its entry to college students by way of Naviance as a approach for schools and universities to seek out invaluable promoting leads and make up for the lack of knowledge from the ACT and SAT. “Unequalled Attain: Affect and Interact Prime Prospects through Naviance,” reads one current EAB advertising presentation.

Naviance says that greater than 10 million college students unfold throughout 40 p.c of U.S. excessive faculties use its providers. That’s about two thirds of the 15.three million college students who have been enrolled in highschool in 2020, in response to the U.S. Division of Training knowledge.

Some districts, like Pittsburgh Public Colleges, have made Naviance the necessary cornerstone of their school and profession readiness applications. 

Starting in third grade, Pittsburgh college students should full a minimum of two classes or surveys tied to their Naviance account every year, in response to a curriculum plan obtained by way of a public data request. In highschool, Pittsburgh college students are required to make use of Naviance’s SuperMatch school search characteristic, request supplies from faculties by way of the platform, and add a minimum of one college to their “Schools I’m Making use of to” listing, in response to the doc.

Pittsburgh Public Colleges didn’t reply to a request for remark.

The surveys ask college students to reply to prompts like “It is vitally necessary to me that different folks see me as a profitable individual” and “I like to steer and persuade folks and promote issues and concepts.” In some circumstances, college students take the surveys as soon as in center college and aren’t allowed to alter their solutions at any level sooner or later. In its person manuals for college students, Naviance encourages college students to make use of the survey outcomes to find out their profession targets and course plans.

Some districts, like Ann Arbor Public Colleges, additionally use Naviance to manage their very own customized surveys about college students’ post-high-school plans. They ask college students to reply questions like “How are you planning on paying for school?”—info that will be invaluable to varsities contemplating which potential recruits to focus their recruiting efforts on.

The Markup didn’t discover any proof that Naviance was utilizing college students’ survey solutions to assist goal ads. 

As a way to graduate, you’ll be able to just about not escape using Naviance.”

– Cassie Creswell, mother or father

Youngsters and fogeys in a number of districts advised The Markup that their faculties required college students to make use of Naviance to take profession aptitude surveys, request trainer suggestions, submit functions, and analysis schools, even when that they had already recognized the faculties they meant to use to.

“As a way to graduate, you’ll be able to just about not escape using Naviance,” mentioned Cassie Creswell, a Chicago mother or father.

That stage of attain has made the platform extremely enticing for faculties like New Jersey Metropolis College, one of many establishments that pays Intersect for promoting providers, which might be competing for a shrinking variety of potential college students.

Jose Balda, NJCU’s director of admissions, mentioned that 382 freshmen—greater than a 3rd of the college’s incoming class in 2020—related with NJCU by way of Naviance (though that will not have been the one approach they found the college).

“That is basically giving college students the chance so as to add us to their buying listing,” Balda mentioned.

A former Naviance account government, who spoke on the situation of anonymity to guard his present job, put it a distinct approach: “It’s a pay to play type of thought, and I don’t assume mother and father know that, however all the schools knew that.”

Empowering college students

The previous worker mentioned that, regardless of the disguised promoting, he believes Naviance gives a invaluable service to many college students, particularly those that have fewer assets or much less familial expertise with the school search course of.

PowerSchool says Naviance empowers college students with knowledge that helps them make knowledgeable selections about their post-high-school plans and instruments to observe by way of on these plans.

Analysis into college students’ use of Naviance means that elevated use of the software program correlates with will increase in school software charges, however its final results are sophisticated.

In 2020, Christine Mulhern, then a Harvard College schooling researcher, investigated the scattergram charts that Naviance shows to college students as they analysis schools. The charts present college students how their GPA and check scores examine to friends from their college who have been accepted by a selected school.

Mulhern discovered that college students have been 20 p.c extra more likely to apply to a school in the event that they first noticed a Naviance scattergram depicting the grades and check scores of beforehand admitted college students. Different analysis has additionally proven that elevated use of Naviance correlates with increased school software charges.

Viewing scattergrams had a selected influence on college students of shade, correlating with elevated four-year-college enrollment charges for college students who’re Black, Hispanic, or acquired free or diminished lunch, Mulhern discovered. However the examine additionally confirmed that these college students who seen Naviance scattergrams have been “much less more likely to apply to achieve schools and extra more likely to attend a security college” and that “it’s in all probability not optimum for college students to reply so strongly to admissions alerts” just like the GPA and check scores that the scattergrams present. 

One other examine, performed by College of California Irvine professor Roderic Crooks, examined how college students in a Los Angeles highschool that was 94 p.c Latino and 6 p.c Black responded to the introduction of Naviance and a faculty mandate that they use the platform to use to a minimum of 4 schools.

He discovered that college students rebelled towards software-enabled surveillance of the applying course of, in some circumstances importing pretend functions to Naviance with the intention to meet their quotas and keep away from expulsion.

“On the stage of the college, on the stage of the person, I believe the advantages are fairly restricted,” Crooks mentioned in an interview. “The advantages accumulate elsewhere.… Naviance wound up with this mountain of knowledge by way of its actions that then turned a saleable, actionable asset. As soon as these channels for aggregating knowledge are created, you then begin to see the businesses pivot and begin to be about one thing else.”

This text was initially printed on The Markup and was republished beneath the Inventive Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license.

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