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Data Privacy Regulations Set to Impact Higher Education Marketing and Enrollment

For 25 years, the collection and trading of financial, social, personal, and location data via digital means has been a booming, multi-billion-dollar business. Web cookies and other tracking technologies, such as personal identifiable information (PII), have basically followed digital users almost everywhere they went, and they rarely had much control over what was collected and how it was used.

This data collection has also become a major foundation of marketing, particularly digital marketing, allowing marketers to segment audiences to reach those that would be most interested in whatever they were pushing. The same is true for higher education marketing, segmenting audiences and pushing information to potential students.

However, the Wild West of data collection and trading appears to have seen its last days, and it has a potential to have a huge impact on how students are attracted into enrollment funnels through advertising.

In May of this year, beginning with the update of iOS 14.5 on iPhones, Apple enacted what it calls Advertising Identifier Declarations (IDFA) in which it actively allowed users of apps on its devices to opt out of data tracking. Each app on the Apple platform was required to present a notification asking a user if they wanted to continue to let the app track their personal information. While this option had previously been available on Apple devices, it was buried in the settings and most users never knew it existed.

The IDFA has created several issues for marketers, particularly in social media apps (and in particular, Facebook). In order to comply, social media platforms first began removing certain audiences available to receive marketing messages among other limiting changes, including conversion tracking changes, even before the 14.5 update was rolled out. Once the update officially happened, it became clear that the PII opt-outs were going to result in significantly less data being available to advertisers.

Like most other industries, this data privacy policy will affect higher education marketing departments. Higher education marketers often segment audiences via their specific use data, including interest in higher education, hobbies, media use, topics they tend to follow, and associations they may follow, among many others. Platforms like LinkedIn can even target down to people who work for specific companies. The segmenting in the past, particularly on social media platforms, allowed higher education marketers to get very granular in nature in who they advertised to, easily targeting those interested in specific degrees or academic paths.  

As more people opt out of data tracking, available audiences will be more and more limited, which can adversely impact the volume of students who respond to advertising and move into the enrollment funnel through advertising. 

In addition, the elimination of many granular targeting options takes away the ability to tightly target potential students.

While marketing departments can still advertise to more general audiences, they may not be able to reach students with the same high level of interest as in the past. This could potentially allow those who aren’t as interested or as likely to enroll into the funnel, wasting both time and money for institutions.

What’s Coming for Data Privacy

Apple’s data privacy actions are just the first of what marketers and their end users will face in the coming years. While currently the limitation of data tracking using PII is mostly limited to Apple devices and apps it supports, it will expand across most digital platforms, mobile operating systems, and beyond.

Google previously announced it will eliminate the support of web cookies. It extended the phase out until 2023, but that will further limit marketers ability to track the behavior or users across one of the most-used web browsers in the world.

In addition, individual states are enacting their own legislation around data privacy. Colorado recently passed the Colorado Privacy Act, which will allow consumers to opt out of the sale of their data and use for targeted advertising. The law is set to go into effect in 2023, as well, and will likely have a significant impact on mailing list clearinghouses, as well. Colorado is the third state to enact such legislation and, undoubtedly, more will follow suit.

All of these circumstances – new corporate policies and state legislation around data privacy — will increasingly narrow targeted data that higher education can leverage to find potential students. It will be one of the biggest challenges facing marketers in the industry as we continue to try to fulfill enrollment goals.


Becky Talley is Assistant Director of Marketing and Communications at University College at the University of Denver, and Vice Chair At-Large for UPCEA’s Marketing, Enrollment, and Student Success Network.

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