Navigating Student Data Privacy in Higher Education

Safeguarding student data and fostering trust around data collection demands a comprehensive approach with robust security measures, strict adherence to privacy laws, clear policies, and continuous staff training.
Published: May 15, 2024

In the digital age, nearly all college activities take place online — from interacting with student services to managing financial aid and participating in classroom engagement. As a result, universities are shifting to digital processes. With this increased reliance on online platforms for centralizing student activities, universities are challenged to not only deliver consistently top-notch experiences but also to safeguard vast amounts of student data.

The volume of student data collected by universities is on the rise post-pandemic, with much of the information being gathered from various isolated digital channels under one network. With this increase in student data sharing, sophisticated data breaches are multiplying in tandem. These breaches put sensitive student information at risk of theft, and can severely impact trust between universities and their primary stakeholders: their student body.

To effectively navigate the digital evolution, institutions need to employ the right data protection strategies to help maintain holistic data management — from prioritizing privacy measures to informed consent.

The Cost of University Data Breaches

In 2022 alone, U.S.-based schools and colleges faced nearly 100 data breaches. This resulted in the exposure of nearly 1.4 million records. What’s worse: IBM recently reported that the average cost of a cybersecurity breach in the higher education sector was $3.7 million, with phishing ranking as the most common breach attempt. The costs — both in terms of dollar amount as well as the potential loss of brand loyalty and trust — are staggering. It emphasizes the need for universities to take action when it comes to protecting data.

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With the generative AI boom in the past year, there is huge potential to enhance security measures through automation and monitoring capabilities. Yet, at the same time, IT security experts express concerns about potential cybersecurity risks, including phishing, malware, and ransomware attacks. In turn, these data breaches can lead to identity theft, scams, and even blackmail for students who are simply complying with mandatory information requests from their college. Institutions can also find themselves liable in instances of data breaches, which open the door to loss of funding and the seizure of intellectual property assets.

The Risk of Handling Vast Amounts of Student Data

Throughout a student’s educational journey, colleges accumulate a huge amount of sensitive personal information — including social security numbers, GPA, health and financial records, and more — which makes student records a prime target for cyberattacks. With this information in hand, bad actors can cause significant harm. Therefore, ensuring the security of student personal data requires robust security measures.

According to a Gartner Report (Higher Education CIOs’ Top Priorities for Technology Modernization), CIOs at higher education institutions are hyper-aware of the need to modernize their tech to achieve this. The report found that modernizing core systems, such as the student information system (SIS), is a current priority for education technology leaders. This can largely be attributed to a need for improved customer experience — which for the purposes of the study was referred to as student, faculty, and staff experience in higher education. It was the biggest driver for core system modernization by 65% of respondents.

Meanwhile, 43% said that potential cost savings and optimization were a motivation for upgrading their core systems. This makes sense — the average cost to remediate a ransomware attack in higher education is just over $1 million. And that cost includes not only the ransom but also the expense of restoring software and data systems to their original state.

All this to say: technology leaders recognize this is an important issue and most plan to remediate it by replacing their SIS by the end of 2024, as current legacy systems are often incapable of meeting student and institutional expectations.

Privacy Measures and Informed Consent

Beyond collecting the data, universities are also charged with processing and safely storing large amounts of student Personal Identifiable Information (PII). Laws like the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), and California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) all serve as guidelines to help institutions do this successfully. Failing to uphold the standards outlined by these regulations exposes institutions to legal liability and financial penalties.

That said, FERPA does not require educational agencies and institutions to destroy education records maintained as a part of the regular school or agency operations. However, many institutions elect to establish their own record retention policies — including time frames for eventual destruction of the records. Minimizing the amount of data retained and destroying it when no longer needed is widely considered a best practice for protecting an individual’s privacy, and lessens the potential impact of a data breach or inadvertent disclosure, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Informed consent ultimately serves as the backbone of effective and compliant data protection practices. Higher education institutions must empower their students by offering consistent and transparent information regarding how their data is used, who will have access to it, and why it is being collected. A consent and preference management platform (CMP) plays a pivotal role in helping universities meet regulations by providing a centralized home for student records.

This approach not only fosters trust but also enables students to make informed decisions based on how much information they want to share in any given digital situation. Delivering clear and transparent opportunities for consent will result in individuals feeling more inclined to consent to data sharing, thereby assisting in the development of their profiles for personalized communications.

Adopting Effective Data Protection Strategies

Strict controls are essential to safeguard information such as degree progress, financial records, and disciplinary records. Placing limits on who can access sensitive information — especially health and financial records — and having clear policies and procedures in place to handle data requests will help universities stay in compliance with privacy laws to protect students’ confidentiality.

A pivotal strategy is data minimization. This process ensures that only necessary information is collected and retained, while unnecessary data is disposed of appropriately to mitigate any potential privacy risks. In other words, it treats data collection as a journey, where only essential information is gathered at each stage, aligned with the student’s academic progress.

For instance, financial aid details should only be retained once placement has been accepted. Meanwhile, only pertinent administrative records should be retained throughout a student’s college journey. By embracing data minimization, universities reduce the risk of data breaches and uphold their commitment to student privacy and confidentiality throughout their academic journey.

The vast majority (93%) of people are reporting concerns surrounding the security of their personal information online — and students are no exception. Safeguarding student data and fostering trust around data collection demands a comprehensive approach with robust security measures, strict adherence to privacy laws, clear policies, and continuous staff training to ensure responsible data management.

The responsibility is on universities to maintain compliant technologies and systems that can ensure data privacy — not only for the sake of their students’ safety but their own funding and operations. By prioritizing data protection strategies and fostering a culture of transparency around data collection practices, universities can pave the way for more secure digital environments and maintain student trust in the digital higher education landscape.

Nicky Watson is the founder and chief architect at Cassie, a consent and preference management platform.

Note: The views expressed by guest bloggers and contributors are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, Campus Safety.

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