By Marcia Daniel, Chief Client Officer, Ferrilli
In the spring of 2021, the Colonial Pipeline data breach hit the southeastern United States particularly hard. For the first time in a generation, there were gasoline shortages that caused service stations to close and long lines at the pumps that somehow remained open. For many of us in the region, it was the first time that data security had impacted our lives on a truly fundamental level. It wasn’t just about personal finance anymore; but our ability to get to the grocery store, drive the kids to soccer practice, or visit loved ones we hadn’t seen in ages.
Here in the summer of 2021, higher education finds itself in a similar circumstance. For years, we’ve known that colleges and universities are among hackers’ favorite targets. We’ve read the stories of ransomware attacks that cost some institutions more than a million dollars. We’ve come to understand the brand damage that can accompany a high-profile breach. But as technology proliferates our campuses and data is used in new ways, something even more important is at stake. Higher education data security is fast becoming a question of student success.
Of all the ways analytics can help improve institutional performance, those aimed at student persistence and retention are among those gaining the most traction. More and more, colleges and universities are looking into systems that employ predictive modeling, artificial intelligence, and machine learning to intervene with at-risk students at the earliest stages possible. It sounds complicated, but the concept is actually quite simple: identify behaviors that correlate with poor academic performance, monitor for those behaviors, and reach out when a student exhibits enough of them to warrant intervention.
Say a student hasn’t visited the library in several weeks, has been skipping meals at the dining hall, hasn’t filed for financial aid on time, or has exhibited other traits indicative of dropping out. When enough of those boxes are checked, these groundbreaking systems generate automated texts and emails that encourage the student to see his or her advisor or take advantage of other support mechanisms. It may sound like next generation technology to some, but these systems have been piloted for some time. Better yet, early returns show that they are working.
But here’s the rub: in order for adoption of these systems to reach critical mass and make a significant impact on student success in the aggregate, students will have to buy-in – and their endorsement won’t come easy.
Some are already conjuring images of Big Brother – complaining that these systems are too intrusive and raising ethical questions about how student data is collected and used. And while recent surveys demonstrate that students largely trust institutions as responsible stewards of their personal information, they are evenly split on the more targeted question of student success analytics. An October 2020 study conducted by EDUCAUSE finds that just 53 percent of students are “comfortable with my institution’s use of my personal data to help achieve my educational goals.”
So, at the very moment student outcomes are coming under intensified scrutiny, and tools for improving those outcomes are becoming more widely available, we find ourselves in a place where students could go either way on whether or not colleges and universities should be trusted to use those tools responsibly.
That puts the real cost of a data breach into context, and it elevates higher education data security to a place it has never been before. What was once a strictly financial and reputational concern is now something that cuts to the very core of the institution’s mission and reason for being. What was once about what we have to lose is now about what we stand to gain.
And for those who still can’t get past the dollars and cents of it all, consider the three pronged costs associated with a single student dropping out – both in terms of lost institutional revenue, the impact on local economies writ large and the impact on the student’s life. You’ll see that it doesn’t take long before improved graduation and completion rates can offset even the most aggressive ransomware attack – and that you have yet another reason to take higher education data security more seriously than ever before.
If you have questions or concerns about the data security on your campus, Ferrilli is here to help. We’re mission-driven to ensuring higher ed is safe and secure! Get in touch with us today to start a conversation.