Universities sell contact information to solicitors

Say you’ve started a business near a large state university such as USF and want to tap into its huge population of students with excess loan money and credit cards.

Or perhaps you’re working for a national company that sells products like class rings to graduating seniors.

If you have time to spare, you can look up thousands of names in the local phone book and put together a mailing list to market these products to students, but the problem is that there’s no way to tell who’s a student and who’s not.

The answer for businesses trying to reach students is actually simpler and less time-consuming.

They can go directly to the University itself and, for a negligible fee, get the names, phone numbers and addresses of as many students as desired, all neatly typed and organized.

Like almost every public university, USF does not keep students’ contact information under lock and key. In fact, it regularly complies with requests from numerous third parties – including U.S. military recruiters and unaffiliated businesses – who seek student names, addresses and phone numbers.

As a state institution funded partly by tax dollars, the University is subject to the open records laws meant to keep the process of government transparent. Since student contact information is considered public record, USF must release that information to the public when requested.

In her four years at USF, Meredith Imler, a senior, said she was never told by the University that her contact information was available to third parties.

“I think the University should make it more clear to students that that’s what’s happening,” Imler said. “And I think students should have the option that if they don’t want their information released, they can sign a thing saying they don’t have to.”

USF, by law, actually complies with both of her demands – the University informs students of their privacy rights and protects students’ rights to keep their information confidential.

As a condition of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), students receive an e-mail from USF every fall stating that they can submit a privacy request to keep their directory information confidential, said Assistant Registrar for Systems Evan Rosenthal, whose department handles all public records requests for student information.

The availability of student directory information and student rights to privacy under FERPA is also detailed in the Undergraduate and Graduate Catalogs, in the Student Handbook and on the Registrar’s Web site.

Even though the University is in line with federal laws, there could be many students like Imler who have no idea their contact information is open to third parties.

Some students are not sure that the University is doing enough to inform the student body of its right to privacy.

Sophomore Daniel Martinez also didn’t know a public records request to USF could reveal his address and phone number.

“I was never told anything when I signed up,” Martinez said. “Or in any of my classes, or (at) orientation.”

The range of information available to recruiters, political campaigns and credit card companies is broad.

Through the Registrar’s Office, third parties can solicit student names, local and permanent addresses, telephone numbers, date of birth, major, and photographic image – all considered directory information by the federal government, state and University.

All third parties – such as U.S. military recruiters, a company selling graduation announcements or even student organizations – have to pay $100 per request, Rosenthal said.

The price USF charges is by no means the standard in higher education for data requests.

The University of Florida, for example, grants student information at a base cost of $64, with 11 cents added for every hundred names. Third parties can order the information pre-printed on mailing lists for twice the cost, said Mary Ann Hagler, the associate registrar at UF.

This semester, the Registrar’s Office has fielded data requests from entities as diverse as the U.S. Army and Marines, local bookseller Books & More, companies catering to graduating seniors, such as Herff-Jones, Balfour and Bob Knight Photography, the USF Federal Credit Union, Bulls Outfitters and local laundry company Student Suds.

Once a year the University publishes its directory, in which are printed the names, addresses and phone numbers of everyone affiliated with USF who hasn’t submitted a privacy request.

The USF Federal Credit Union, a non-profit financial institution that serves only the University community, puts in a records request “once or twice a year,” Marketing Manager Beth Millich said.

The information is used to create mailing lists to advertise to students “anything a bank would offer,” Milich said, such as savings and checking accounts, loans and credit cards.

Students can rest easy, however, if they’re afraid a company can dig up any more information about them. Social security numbers, student IDs, GPAs, grades and even e-mail addresses are sealed from the view of anyone outside the University. The same goes for a student’s gender, race, ethnicity and nationality.

HOW DO I REQUEST PRIVACY?Unlike at the University of Florida and the University of Central Florida, you have to dig a little to find links and information about FERPA and student directory information on the USF Registrar’s Web site.

For a quick and easy way to veil your contact info, go to Registrar.usf.edu/privacy. You will be prompted for your USF ID and OASIS PIN. Once you sign in, you can choose the level of confidentiality you prefer, and within 48 hours your selection will go into effect.

The Privacy Request will last until you’ve been unenrolled at USF for three consecutive semesters.

Students have two to three weeks at the start of the semester to ask for confidentiality before the Registrar’s Office will honor any requests for student directory information, said Evan Rosenthal, Assistant Registrar for Systems.

“We allow for that grace period for students to request privacy,” Rosenthal said.

Last fall, data requests were put off until Sept. 19, more than three weeks past the semester’s Aug. 27 start date.