A US university is tracking students’ locations to predict future dropouts

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Image: Reuters/Fabian Bimmer
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At the University of Arizona, school officials know when students are going to drop out before they do.

The public college in Tucson has been quietly collecting data on its first-year students’ ID card swipes around campus for the last few years. The ID cards are given to every enrolled student and can be used at nearly 700 campus locations including vending machines, libraries, labs, residence halls, the student union center, and movie theaters.

They also have an embedded sensor that can be used to track geographic history whenever the card is swiped. These data are fed into an analytics system that finds “highly accurate indicators” of potential dropouts, according to a press release last week from the university. ”By getting [student’s] digital traces, you can explore their patterns of movement, behavior and interactions, and that tells you a great deal about them,” Sudha Ram, a professor of management systems, and director of the program, said in the release. “It’s really not designed to track their social interactions, but you can, because you have a timestamp and location information,” Ram added.

For an example of how granular those data points can get, take Ram’s explanation of social tracking: “There are several quantitative measures you can extract from these networks, like the size of [students’] social circle, and we can analyze changes in these networks to see if their social circle is shrinking or growing, and if the strength of their connections is increasing or decreasing over time.”

The University of Arizona currently generates lists of likely dropouts from 800 data points, which do not yet include Ram’s research but include details like demographic information and financial aid activity. Those lists, made several times a year, are shared with college advisers so they can intervene before it’s too late. The schools says the lists are 73% accurate and Ram’s research yields 85% to 90% accuracy, though it did not give details on how those rates are measured.

The University of Arizona freshman retention rate jumped from 80.5% to 83.3% last year—so its so-called “Smart Campus” project appears to be useful. But as Gizmodo points out, algorithms are not free from bias, and relying on these sorts of predictive tools can create major blind spots.

At the end of the day, universities are businesses trying to retain customers. Other schools also keep tabs on their students’ activities—some, as Quartz found in 2015, even track the online footprints of prospective students—but the fact that University of Arizona students are not asked to opt into the project when signing up for their ID cards makes this different from, say, a person knowingly signing up for an account on Amazon or Google. The university will have to contend with these issues and others before it expands the program, and particularly if it has aims to use Smart Campus to actively make decisions about students instead of just spitting out predictive lists.