Applicants Laid Bare: the Privacy Economics of University Application Files

So—Princeton University’s admissions staff hacked into Yale University’s application files to get access to personal information about Yale applicants. This unlikely event brings to mind the comprehensiveness of application files—a veritable one-stop-shop for those interested in applicants’ personal information. Just how private are university application files? How private should they be? The common law, supported by the law-and-economics literature, offers little protection to the privacy of personal information. In most circumstances it allocates to those lawfully in possession of another’s personal information a right to re-employ it. A rule of disclosure is not efficient in every case, however. Significantly for present purposes, a rule of disclosure may well be inefficient in adhesive relationships in which willing disclosure of high-value, private facts is followed by secondary employment unanticipated by the subject. This Article addresses the privacy economics of such relationships. As an example, this Article will consider the secondary employment of higher-education application-file disclosures in light of two socially desirable objectives of the admission process: (1) Maximizing the content and accuracy of applicant disclosure to inform admission decisions; and (2) maximizing the number of qualified, willing applicants. Social efficiency requires pursuit of these goals at least cost.

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