Data breaches are an unfortunate reality these days, even for colleges and universities—and their impact can be hugely damaging. According to a recent study by Comparitech, over 2,600 data breaches occurred in U.S. schools between 2005 and 2023, affecting nearly 32 million records.
The good news is that institutions can take steps to reduce the risk and recover if information is exposed. By understanding the threats, implementing stronger protections, and knowing how to respond to a college data breach, higher education institutions can avoid becoming another statistic.
What Is a College Data Breach?
A college data breach refers to unauthorized and potentially malicious access, disclosure, or acquisition of sensitive or confidential information belonging to a college or university. These breaches can occur when cybercriminals gain access to a college’s computer systems, networks, or databases, exposing sensitive data to potential theft or manipulation. Sensitive information that can be targeted in a college data breach includes:
- Student data—This may include personal information like names, addresses, Social Security numbers (SSNs), academic records, and financial data. Student data breaches can be particularly damaging, as they can lead to identity theft and financial fraud
- Faculty and staff information—Employee records, including personal details and payroll information, may be compromised in a breach
- Research data—Colleges and universities often engage in cutting-edge research, and the theft of research data can have severe consequences. This may include scientific research or proprietary information
- Financial data—Information related to the institution’s finances, including budgets, donor records, and financial transactions, can be targeted for financial gain or disruption
- Health records—Some educational institutions have medical or health-related programs where they store sensitive patient records. Breaches of medical records can result in violations of health privacy laws
- Educational records—Grades, transcripts, and other educational records may be accessed and manipulated
- Intellectual property—Colleges and universities often store valuable intellectual property, such as patents, copyrighted materials, and research findings, which could be stolen or compromised
Top Causes of College and University Data Breaches
When it comes to data breaches at colleges and universities, there are a few common causes to be aware of. Some of the top threats for colleges include:
- Outdated technology
- Phishing attacks
- Weak passwords
- Lost or stolen devices
- Insider threats
- Ransomware attacks
- Social engineering attacks
- Third-party vendors
Many schools still use outdated data management systems that lack modern security protocols. Legacy systems with known vulnerabilities that haven’t been patched provide easy targets for hackers. Schools need to invest in new technology and software that offer data encryption, multi-factor authentication, and other protection measures.
Phishing emails and malware are a leading cause of data breaches at colleges. Students, faculty, and staff may click on malicious links or download infected attachments, unknowingly installing software that steals login credentials and sensitive data. Comprehensive cybersecurity training is key to reducing the success of phishing tactics in college environments.
Simple or reused passwords are a major vulnerability. When students use the same weak password across systems, accounts, and websites, one breach can compromise access to their personal email, health records, financial aid information, and more. To prevent this, schools should enforce the use of strong, unique passwords whenever possible.
Lost or Stolen Devices
Laptops, USB drives, and other devices that contain unencrypted student data can easily be lost or stolen, exposing records to unauthorized access. Any device that stores sensitive information should be encrypted to prevent data exposure, in case the hardware ends up in the wrong hands.
Unfortunately, not all threats come from outside the organization—disgruntled employees or students with malicious intent can access sensitive data and systems. Enforce strict access controls and monitoring to detect unauthorized access. To stay safe from insider threats, college institutions should regularly train staff and students on security best practices.
Colleges are frequently targeted by ransomware—malware that hackers use to encrypt data and then demand payment to decrypt them. Phishing emails and unpatched software vulnerabilities are common infection methods. To mitigate ransomware risks, schools should run regular phishing simulations and patch management to strengthen defenses.
Social Engineering Attacks
Social engineering relies on manipulation to gain access, whether through phone calls, emails, or in-person. Schools should educate the campus community about common social engineering techniques, such as phishing, baiting, and pretexting, and make two-factor authentication mandatory for accounts containing sensitive data.
Colleges often share data with various third-party vendors like software providers, research partners, or equipment suppliers, and a lack of oversight of their security practices puts data at risk. To mitigate the risks of data breaches, they should carefully vet all vendors, require compliance with data security standards, and reassess relationships regularly.
College and University Data Breach Cases in Recent Years
Recent years have seen an alarming rise in data breaches targeting colleges and universities. Here are some notable examples:
- One of the largest college data breaches happened in 2019 when the education company Pearson experienced a data breach that exposed over 13,000 student records. The data included names, email addresses, dates of birth, and, in some cases, SSNs
- In 2017, a breach at Edmodo, a social networking site for teachers and students, compromised over 77 million user accounts. The data included usernames, email addresses, and hashed passwords
- In 2021, Stanford University announced that hackers had accessed sensitive data on students and staff, including names, addresses, and SSNs. The breach occurred through a compromised file transfer system used by Stanford Medicine
- In 2019, Georgia Tech University’s central database was hacked, exposing the records of nearly 1.27 million students, as well as faculty and staff members
These sobering stats highlight the need for colleges and universities to strengthen security practices and be transparent in the event of a breach to aid swift recovery.
Key Strategies for Preventing College Data Breaches
To prevent devastating data breaches, colleges and universities should prioritize cybersecurity. Here are key protection strategies colleges should employ:
- Updating systems regularly
- Using strong passwords and two-factor authentication
- Restricting access and permissions
- Encrypting sensitive data
- Educating staff and students
Updating Systems Regularly
Schools should keep all software and systems up to date with the latest security patches. This includes operating systems, content management systems, student information systems, and any other web-based portals. As hackers are looking to exploit vulnerabilities in outdated software, updating systems is critical.
Using Strong Passwords and Two-Factor Authentication
Colleges and universities need to enforce the use of strong, unique passwords that include a minimum of eight characters, upper and lowercase letters, numbers, and symbols. They should also enable two-factor authentication whenever possible to add an extra layer of security when logging into accounts and systems.
Restricting Access and Permissions
Colleges should only grant access to student and employee data on a need-to-know basis—the fewer people have access, the lower the chances of a breach. Schools should monitor who has access to systems regularly and remove access immediately when someone leaves the college.
Encrypting Sensitive Data
Any sensitive data, such as SSNs, financial information, and health records, should be encrypted when stored in databases and transmitted to other parties. Encryption helps ensure that even if hackers access the data, they can’t read or use it.
Educating Staff and Students
The human factor is often the weak link in security, so colleges should conduct regular cybersecurity awareness training for all staff and students. The training should incorporate:
- Recognizing phishing scams
- Creating strong passwords
- Avoiding unsecured Wi-Fi networks
- Keeping software and applications updated
With these measures, colleges can safeguard the information in their custody from unauthorized access as well as protect the identities of students, staff, and faculty members. The responsibility of protecting data isn’t solely on the institution, though. As a concerned parent, you should take the initiative to protect your child attending college from the impacts of such breaches.
The consequences of compromising children’s private data can range from financial fraud to identity theft—in fact, a child’s identity is stolen every 30 seconds. To add an extra layer of security, you can sign up for identity protection services like FreeKick, which offer an invaluable layer of defense by providing monitoring for unauthorized use of your child’s private data.
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Identity Monitoring Services
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|Services for Adult Children and Parents||Services for Minor Children|
|Credit profile monitoring|
Dark web monitoring for personal information
Up to $1 million identity theft insurance
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Lost wallet protection
Court records monitoring
Change of address monitoring
Non-credit (Payday) loan monitoring
Free FICO® Score monthly
FICO® Score factors
Experian credit report monthly
|Credit profile monitoring|
Dark web monitoring for children’s personal information
Up to $1 million identity theft insurance
Full-service white-glove concierge credit restoration
Sex offender monitoring—based on sponsor parent’s address
Parent-Sponsored Credit Building
FreeKick offers more than just identity monitoring—it provides a parent-sponsored credit-building service to help your children aged 14–25 establish their credit history early in life. Having good credit can save your child more than $200,000 in loans and interest over their lifetime.
When your child turns 14, all you need to do is click Activate Credit Building on your account dashboard. Once they reach adulthood (age 18 in most states), they can choose Activate Credit Reporting, and FreeKick will automatically report their credit history to the three major credit bureaus:
In case your child is a legal adult, credit reporting will start automatically within three months of opening a FreeKick account.
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FreeKick offers a range of pricing options to fit any budget. With each plan, you can enjoy top-notch identity protection for up to two parents and six children, as well as credit-building features for six children. Rest assured, all deposits are FDIC-insured up to $250,000.
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|Deposit Amount||Annual Fee|
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