NH DOE’s Newest State Partner Requires “Unambiguous Consent” to Students’ Online Data, Raising Questions about Privacy and Security

Privacy Disclosure: In this article, we link to the Modern States website; by visiting that website, your personal information may be collected, used, retained, and shared with third party vendors in and out of the United States. We have marked these embedded links with an asterisk (*) for your awareness.

On October 5, 2020, the NH Department of Education (“DOE”) and Commissioner Frank Edelblut announced a state partnership with Modern States, for which New Hampshire high school students and recent graduates can take modules developed by Modern States in order to pass the College Board’s College Level Examination Program (“CLEP”) exam and, potentially, earn college credit.

Here’s what we know:

  • According to the NH DOE’s press release, Modern States would pay for 1,000 CLEP tests and proctoring fees for New Hampshire high school students and recent graduates.
  • The NH partnership* also includes a $50 stipend for students who enroll, and a $150 stipend for students who complete a course and pass the CLEP exam. It is unclear whether the stipend would be paid for by the NH DOE, Modern States, or another entity.
  • New Hampshire students complete an application with personally-identifiable information, submit the application, and have no direct opportunity to confirm they have read and agreed to the Privacy Policy, which states that their information can be collected, retained, and shared with partners in and out of the United States.
  • Modern States’ Privacy Policy states that students, users, and visitors to the site provide “unambiguous consent to the collection, use, disclosure, and retention of Personal Information,” including geolocation, information about students’ software and hardware, social media information (if applicable, including birth date, likes, searches, and preferences), and more.
  • Modern States has the authority to share students’ personal information with third parties, according to its Privacy Policy, and those third parties are permitted to share, as well as keep, students’ personal information.
  • The Privacy Policy applies to all users and visitors 13 years of age and older. Parental consent is only required for users and visitors younger than 13 years old.

A review of Modern States’ Privacy Policy reveals an organization that collects and shares student data, including personal information. The partnership raises important questions about student data privacy in New Hampshire, which are included at the end of this article.

The press release announcing the partnership was immediately posted on the Department of Education’s website but has since been removed from the full list of press releases and is not retrievable through the site’s search engine. It is unclear exactly when or why the press release was removed from the list. (Update: Twelve hours after this article was posted, the press release and news stories were visible again on the DOE’s website)

About Modern States and the State Partnership

On October 5, 2020, the NH DOE announced a state partnership with Modern States, a NYC-based nonprofit that, in collaboration with other education technology firms, develops modules designed to “prepare [students] to pass the College Board’s CLEP examination,” which are used at many colleges to test out of general education course requirements.

The organization is founded and funded by Steve Klinsky, founder and CEO of the private equity firm New Mountain Capital, and, prior, “co-founder of the Leverage Buyout Group of Goldman Sachs & Co. (“Goldman”) (1981-1984), where he helped execute over $3 billion of pioneering transactions for Goldman and its clients.”

The NH partnership with Modern States also includes a $50 stipend for NH students who enroll in a course, and a $150 stipend for NH students who complete a course and pass the CLEP exam. It is unclear whether the stipend is paid by the DOE, Modern States, or another entity.

According to the press release, Modern States’ founder and CEO Steve Klinsky and Representative Glenn Cordelli (R-Tuftonboro) both attribute their direct collaboration with Commissioner Edelblut in securing this State partnership for New Hampshire students. Commissioner Edelblut called it a “great resource for NH families,” praising Modern States’ approach to “free” college.

“Unambiguous consent” to student data collection

According to the Modern States Privacy Policy*, students and other users “unambiguously consent to the collection, use, disclosure and retention of Personal Information in the United States and other countries and territories, for the purposes set forth in this Privacy Policy and the Terms of Service.” The Privacy Policy applies to all users 13 years of age and older. Parental consent is not required, unless the student or visitor is younger than 13 years old. Click here to download the Privacy Policy as a pdf.

The Privacy Policy identifies information Modern States may collect through the student’s activity, including the student’s geolocation, their wireless service provider, the device they use, the link they clicked to get to the Modern States website, and information about students’ software and hardware:

“When you access and interact with the Modern States Services, we may collect certain information about those visits, such as your searches and preferences as well as technical information about your computer and its operating system, your internet browser, your internet protocol address, your navigation path (including your navigation on the Modern States Services and the domain names of the sites from and to which you link), and other information about your software and hardware. If you access the Modern States Services from a mobile or other device, we may collect certain information including the unique device identifier assigned to that device, geolocation data, your wireless service provider, operating system, browser type and other transactional information for that device.”

The Privacy Policy also allows Modern States to share students’ personal data with third party organizations, including those outside of the United States, and those organizations are permitted to share student data with their own business partners. Modern States is allowed to share personal information, including for the purposes of advertising and direct marketing communications:

“Modern States may share your Personal Information with our business partners to permit them to send you marketing communications consistent with your preferences and use of the Modern States Services and otherwise provide their services to you, and our business partners may share such information with their business partners.”

The Privacy Policy allows Modern States to retain student information even after a student cancels their Modern States account. The policy also allows third party organizations to retain information about students and users after they unsubscribe from Modern States emails and communications: “we are not responsible for removing your Personal Information from the lists of any third party who has previously been provided your information in accordance with this Privacy Policy or your consent.”

New Hampshire’s Modern States Application Page

New Hampshire students who would like to participate in the Modern States’ “New Hampshire x Freshman Year for Free*” program are directed to a state-specific application page*, which collects their name, high school, city where they live, contact information, and other information.

There are no fields to enter birth date or to provide “parental consent.” There is also no obvious link to Modern States’ Privacy Policy directly in the application, or prompt to ensure that the user has read the Privacy Policy prior to submitting the application. However, users who sign up on Modern States’ main application page* are required to accept the terms of the Privacy Policy.

In short, New Hampshire students would complete an application page with personally-identifiable information, submit the application, and have no direct opportunity to confirm they have read and agreed to the Privacy Policy, which states that their information can be collected, retained, and shared with partners in and out of the United States. New Hampshire students are then required to complete the Modern States main application in order to enroll in courses.

The slideshow below includes screenshots of the “New Hampshire x Freshman Year for Free” program homepage, the “How it Works” pages, and the program application pages:

Click the following links to download PDF versions of Modern States’ policies:

Modern States Privacy Policy

Modern States “How it Works” page

NH-specific Modern States “How it Works” page

NH-specific Modern States application page

NH-specific Modern States acceptance page

General Modern States application page

Questions About Student Data Privacy

The partnership between the NH DOE and Modern States presents a number of critical questions surrounding student data privacy in New Hampshire and the purpose of this venture, including:

  • If Modern States already provides free testing vouchers to users, what additional benefit does the partnership with the NH DOE provide?
  • How many New Hampshire students have registered with — or visited — the Modern States site since the NH DOE’s announcement on October 5?
  • If students must already complete the NH-specific application, what additional purpose does the Modern States’ main application serve? 
  • Were the NH DOE, Commissioner Edelblut, and/or Representative Cordelli aware of the Modern States Privacy Policy prior to securing the NH partnership?
  • Does the NH DOE have control over the data collected on NH students? If so, how will it be used?
  • Will the NH DOE and/or Commissioner Edelblut have access to the data collected by Modern States, and if so, to what extent?
  • In an interview with InDepth NH, Commissioner Edelblut referred to a “commitment” with Modern States, as well as a “grant.” Is there a formal agreement between the NH DOE and Modern States, and if so, are there provisions in the agreement regarding student data privacy?
  • Who pays for the $50 and $150 stipends for students: Modern States; the NH DOE; or another entity?

This report was a collaborative effort between Reaching Higher NH and the NH Alliance for College and Career Readiness.