US universities used recruitment tool ‘to target white students’

Naviance, available to nearly half of nation’s high school students, admits years of Caucasian filtering for campuses building candidate lists

April 27, 2022
student fans of basketball team the Kansas Jayhawks
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US universities using the nation’s leading student selection platform for years shaped their recruitment efforts using a Caucasian-only option for choosing applicants.

The situation involving the online college-selection service Naviance lasted for several years until 2019, without any known protest by universities, until a single company executive discovered it and stopped it.

The company said it had no estimate of how many institutions had used the whites-only applicant filter, or how many students had been directly affected by it.

But institutions whose contracts are known to have listed “Caucasian” in sections indicating the types of students they wished to match for outreach purposes include the universities of Kansas, Massachusetts-Boston and Southern Maine. All three institutions offered responses that did not explain the matter, and Naviance officials suggested that the practice might have been far more widespread.

“Obviously, in that scenario, poor product design was incentivising behaviour that wasn’t equitable for students,” said the executive who discovered the situation, Amy Reitz, currently vice-president of product at PowerSchool, which owns Naviance. “It shouldn’t have been allowed.”

Naviance is a service hired by secondary schools – with customers representing close to half of all US school-leavers – that gives students an online portal through which they can search for campuses that fit their abilities and interests. Universities in turn use the resulting data, through a companion product known as Intersect, to decide which students they will actively recruit.

PowerSchool purchased Naviance and Intersect from the software company Hobsons for $320 million (£251 million) last year.

Describing the situation to Times Higher Education, Ms Reitz said she was working at Hobsons when she was assigned to review the operations of Intersect – known then as Matching Solutions – and saw that colleges and universities were being offered and were using filters for student applicants that included a Caucasian-only option.

“I don’t think that institutions wanted to reach only white students,” Ms Reitz said. “I think they were likely budget-constrained and could only pick so many filters, and so they would choose the race that had the greatest population in a selected state.”

The creation of race-based filters to produce whites-only lists for student recruitment was “deeply troubling” and “frankly nauseating”, said Roxana Marachi, a professor of teacher education at San Jose State University.

“It’s shocking to look at,” said Ceceilia Parnther, an assistant professor of higher education at St John’s University-New York, noting that there were no known circumstances in the US where white students faced disadvantages in college access based on their race.

Another expert, Joel Schwarz, a cybersecurity consultant and adjunct professor at Albany Law School, said he “could certainly see some schools might have certain predispositions”. “Inherent biases still exist our society,” he said.

An early indication of the problem came in January when the technology-focused site The Markup noted apparent references to whites-only filters in a few Hobsons contracts – those in 2015 and 2016 at Kansas, UMass-Boston and Southern Maine.

Spokesmen at both UMass-Boston and Southern Maine told THE that they had no comment. “Because the segment wasn’t something we asked for or discussed with Naviance, we have no insight as to how or why it was added,” a Kansas spokeswoman said.

PowerSchool said it was unable to find out how many universities had used the whites-only filter, or when it began, because the activity occurred before its purchase of Naviance and Intersect.

The company’s current system no longer allows institutions any filters of student applicants that involve a particular race, Ms Reitz said. It does, however, allow institutions to limit their selections to a category that includes all racial and ethnic minorities.

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Reader's comments (2)

This is a great article, and many thanks to Ms. Reitz for reviewing the software and uncovering this information. Dr. Joel Schwarz's statements “could certainly see some schools might have certain predispositions” and “Inherent biases still exist in our society” are spot on. While such bias in the education system is terrible, it pales in comparison to the bias in companies when it comes to hiring. I hope a similar study is done for recruitment processes.
Haha this is why Amy Reitz should resign. She's incompetent and has been for years, even back to the days she worked for Hobsons, the original owners is Naviance. She has no knowledge of Product Management and to be a VP she should be held accountable. Shame.


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