If you’re reading this blog for the first time, welcome. And if you’ve read it before, welcome back. Whichever group you fall into, it’s a sure thing that somewhere on the interwebs, a data aggregator knows what pages you’ve clicked on to get here and is adding to the deluge of information about you that’s in their database. That info will be analyzed, added to, sold, shared, and used in countless ways until they know more about your behavior than you do.

Wait a minute. I need to close the window blinds and adjust my tin foil hat. There’s a big solar storm, you know. OK, now we can continue.

Paranoid ramblings aside, dear reader, we live in a data-driven world, and with every new education bill that’s passed, the expectations increase for us to be even more data-driven people. But among the many Information Age problems we struggle with in education, one of the most fundamental is an inability to share key data. While we work diligently to serve our students’ best interests, we’re often constrained by the need to protect their personal information. Yet many of those same students will reveal far more personal facts simply to win a free can of Red Bull or earn a few more followers on YouTube and Instagram. Oh, the irony.

At last September’s UC Counselor Conference in Irvine, during the Q&A segment of the TAG session, I had what felt like a pair of brainstorms. They may simply have been short-circuits – maybe my tin foil hat was too tight – but I spoke up anyway.

My first suggestion was for the Cal State and University of California systems to partner on implementation of online transfer planning tools. Both systems have online transfer planners, and both work well in their own ways. The CSU Transfer Planner even includes an effective function for tracking progress of both CSU and UC general education courses. But when both are funded by the state, and many students apply to both systems, why should students have to use two separate tools? When I suggested a shared system I was thinking of a better tool for students, but I was also dreaming of a day when the CSU would facilitate better relations with prospective transfer students. I also dream that the CSU will share data with their community college partners about these prospective students, and later, about how well these students do at completing their stated goals. I was happy to hear that discussions had actually taken place about the idea of a shared tool, but the rest of my dream is probably more of a fantasy. Or maybe it’s a cosmic ray-induced hallucination. Quick – where’s that tin foil again?

My second suggestion was that the UC should work toward a single web site to be used by students and counselors alike throughout the admission process. Students would use the site to plan their transfer and submit their Transfer Admission Guarantee (TAG) applications, but unlike the current system, they would stay with the same site to submit their complete UC application, the Application Update, their Statement of Intent to Enroll (SIE), etc. It would be a single point of student/UC system contact, until they submit the SIE, at which time the student would be handed off to their specific campus of choice.

OK, that seems like a conventional enough suggestion, right? You have your tin foil too, and you’ve taken your 12,000 mg of vitamin C today, right? Hang on – here’s where I’m really taking us off the rails.

Let’s take that unified UC site I described above, and merge it with the combined CSU & UC planning site we also dream of. One Site to Rule, uhh, I mean Serve Them All. Then let counselors access it to get student data whenever we can use it most effectively, from the first day a student creates their account to the last day before they start their UC or CSU classes.

Maybe a student is just starting their university research and uses the planning tool to express interest in transfer to UC Santa Cruz. If we happen to have UCSC representative appointments coming up, we could run a report to find that student and let her know about those resources. Maybe we have an upcoming campus tour or a post-application workshop for transfers to Cal State Fullerton.  With this tool we could let prospective CSUF students know about these upcoming activities that would benefit them and the university. Or maybe a student was denied admission to all of the campuses where he applied. This tool might let us reach out to that student immediately so we can help him with filing an appeal and/or establishing an alternate plan, before that student wanders off, destined for a life of underemployment and reading silly blogs all day.

And an even more radical use for such a tool: We could actually use it to evaluate student outcomes and help improve our programs and services.

Of course, the need to protect students’ personal information hasn’t changed. But all we need to do is explain the benefits and limits of this data sharing and give the student a chance to opt in or out, just as the UC already does on their admission application. While we’re at it, let’s give students the chance to share the fact that they just signed up for the planner or applied to a university by adding a “share” link to post an announcement on their Twitter or Instagram pages. It just might be that other students would be drawn to the site as well. Maybe we could even throw in a free can of Red Bull.

We have the technology. We can make advising better, stronger, and faster. We also have the mandate, and the funding is flowing better than it has in many years. It’s time. Let’s roll up our sleeves, put on our tin foil hats, and make this happen.

By Robert Waldren