Get Smart About Data Privacy in Higher Education

Get Smart About Data Privacy in Higher Education

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When one of my relatives started participating in a research study run by a major west coast university, it got me thinking about the personal data higher education organizations gather and administer. For this study, he shared all his previous medical history; handed over personal data including name, address, and social security #; and goes in once a week to have his vitals read and recorded. This study includes hundreds of people and is just one research project in one department in a huge organization.  

Universities are really like large conglomerates that can include healthcare facilities, scientific and medical research laboratories as well as businesses that market to potential students for recruiting and alumni for fundraising. This makes universities a substantial target for bad actors looking for rich sources of data to steal. In April 2021, Gizmodo revealed that several leading US universities had been affected by a major hack, with some sensitive data revealed online in an attempt to pressure ransom payments. The COVID-19 pandemic brought increased threats to higher ed which are negatively impacting school credit ratings, according to Moody’s.  

And because universities span across multiple industries, they must comply with multiple relevant laws including PII and HIPAA privacy protections in addition to specific regulations around student data laid out in the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). FERPA puts protections around “student education records” including grades, transcripts, class lists, student course schedules, and student financial information.  

This all makes data privacy more complicated, but even more crucial for higher education organizations.

New insights, better student outcomes

The good news is that all this data is worth the risk. It’s leading to medical innovations like the new drug trial my relative is participating in. It’s also leading to better outcomes for students. After seeing research from other universities on the power of momentum in student success, Michigan State University analyzed 16 years of student data and found a similar result. Students who attempted 15 or more credits in their first semesters saw six-year graduation rates close to 88 percent compared to the university’s overall 78 percent graduation rate. This led the school to launch a campaign encouraging students to attempt 15 credit hours to graduate faster and save money.

Arizona State University, Georgia State and other leading universities developed adaptive learning technology that continually assesses students and gives instructors feedback on how they can adjust to class or individual student needs. This contributed to a 20% increase in completion for 5,000 algebra students. The University of Texas at Austin is doing something similar to Michigan State by using more than 10 years of demographic and academic data to determine the likelihood a student will graduate in four years. Students identified as at-risk are offered peer mentoring, academic support and learning through small affinity groups.

Unified data governance across the university data ecosystem

As higher ed organizations strive to optimize use of data, they’re migrating workloads to cloud data platforms like Snowflake to optimize financial performance and provide streamlined analytics access. They’re making data available to increasing numbers of users; collecting and sharing sensitive data including PII and PHI, while complying with relevant regulations; and distributing data across multiple tools for data classification and business intelligence.  

This would be difficult enough with the siloed processes some universities face. Trying to coordinate this across multiple departments, conflicting architectures, and legacy tools can be almost impossible. In addition, giving more and more users access to more data creates more and more risk, exposure, attack surfaces, and potential credential threats. “All or nothing” access doesn’t work at scale. In order to ensure that they’re meeting regulatory requirements, universities must have visibility into who is accessing what data, when and how much, have the power to control that access, and document that access on command.  

ALTR can help by unifying data governance across the data ecosystem. ALTR can help you know, control and protect all your data, no matter where it lives. We do this by providing discovery, visibility, management, and security capabilities that enable organizations to identify sensitive data, see who’s accessing it, control how much is being consumed, and take action on anomalies or policy violations. And ALTR works across all the major cloud databases, business intelligence, ETL, and tools such as Snowflake, AWS, ThoughtSpot, Matillion, OneTrust, Collibra, and more.

Don’t let data privacy or protection concerns become a roadblock to the essential research and insights universities provide. Protect data throughout your environment and stay compliant with all the regulations with unified data governance from ALTR.

Interested in how ALTR can help simplify data governance and protect your sensitive data? Request a demo!

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