Digital Musings on the High School to College Transition

This year my kid is a senior in high school, and we’ve spent the past month recuperating from the flurry of college application activity last fall. As should not be a surprise, college admissions have changed lots since I applied to colleges in the pre-internet era, though I somehow still found parts of the process surprising.

It’s 2019, so of course all colleges use online applications. All of the schools my kid applied to accepted one of the common applications, which allow applicants to use one platform to submit the same application to multiple schools. My kid took the SAT and several subject tests, which required registering and sending scores to colleges via the College Board’s website. We were also required by his high school to use an online platform to manage their part of the application process — sending teacher recommendations and transcripts — by linking up that platform to the common application platform. And don’t even get me started on the FAFSA.

There are about 1,500 students in my kid’s senior class, and four (4!) guidance counselors. He attends one of New York City’s public specialized high schools and lots of students apply to selective schools, each of which require additional essays, video uploads, or other materials. Throughout this whole process last fall — which we were fortunate to be able to complete in our apartment where we have broadband internet access and laptops — I could not stop thinking about all of the kids in his school who don’t have that kind of access. They’re filling out college applications in the school library, the public library, maybe at their parents’ workplaces. They may have questions; they definitely have questions, it’s a complicated process on platforms that are not always intuitive to use, and they might have to make several appointments with counselors to have their questions answered.

Throughout my kid’s high school years I’ve thought about the digital divide. The classes he’s taken have required multiple accounts on multiple online systems, some provided by the NYC Dept of Education, some homework systems offered by other entities, and of course the everpresent Google for his high school email account. From talking with other parents in and outside of NYC it seems like most K-12 students are required to use multiple different digital platforms throughout their schooling. In our experience there has been little guidance or training for students or parents on how to use these systems, and no way to opt out of their use.

While I’m concerned with digital literacy, and the assumptions that the persistent “digital native” trope encourages us to make about how students use these required platforms, I’m also concerned about data privacy. My kid’s high school and all of these various college application systems have so much information about him and created by him. Each college he applied to required him to set up an account on their system to communicate admissions decisions. How many schools — primary through higher ed — have digital information about students who are no longer enrolled or perhaps won’t even be admitted? Yes, educational institutions retained student (or prospective student) data in the past, but file cabinets full of paper applications in an admissions office don’t have the same information security implications as a digital database.

While it’s certainly been cathartic for me to write out my frustrations, how does this connect to libraries? I continue to keep in mind our students’ experiences with technologies, remembering that they’ve likely had varying exposure to training on digital platforms for school use, as well as varying access to the technology needed to use those platforms. Not every student has a computer with broadband internet access at home. It also feels ever more urgent to me for libraries to strengthen our data privacy practices, a huge issue that we don’t have complete control over, with so many of our digital platforms controlled by vendors. I’m cheered that there are librarians and others doing great work on data privacy issues, including the National Web Privacy Forum (which I was fortunate to participate in), focusing on how we might protect patrons from third-party tracking, and the Data Doubles project, which is examining students’ perspectives on data collection by libraries and institutions of higher ed. I’m looking forward to digging into the results of this work as these projects progress. And in the meantime, perhaps I’ll work with my kid to see what data we might delete from all of these systems once he no longer needs them to have it.

Author: Maura Smale

Maura Smale is Chief Librarian at New York City College of Technology, City University of New York.

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