Colleges, Recruiting Even the Imaginary Students By LORI ROZSA DECEMBER 9, 2014 The cascade of college marketing mail started when my daughter was a junior in high school. What began as a trickle — a few teaser postcards, a couple of glossy catalogs — turned into a flood the summer before her senior year.Friends who had shepherded their children through the college application process had warned me about the reams of mail sent out by colleges, almost all of it unsolicited, so I wasn’t surprised.
What did surprise me was when Brother Bill started getting college mail.
“Time is running out, William!” warned the postcard from Florida Southern College. “Everyone would love to see you on campus,” Flagler College wrote.
“Learn why you should add us to your list,” said the letter from the United States Air Force Academy. “If you’re considering top schools like Duke, U.C.L.A. and Northwestern, then you need to consider one of America’s most selective universities — the United States Air Force Academy.”
The problem was, William wasn’t considering any of those schools, because he doesn’t exist. Somewhere in the vast and opaque marketing relationship that exists between colleges, high schools and the college-testing agencies, an entirely new student was born.
A computer program had apparently misread a form, because William’s first and last names were close in spelling to my daughter’s name, off by just a few letters. The program did get the home address right.
As more mail came in for Brother Bill, the cynical gamesmanship of the college admissions process really sank in. Students (and sometimes, even more so, their parents) who become starry-eyed when colleges come calling via the mailbox need a gentle but clear reality check: It’s all about the numbers, not about them.
Many colleges are chasing the lowest admissions rates, which is the holy grail that they seek to help them them climb up the exclusivity ladder. The more students a college can persuade to apply, the more they can turn down, making their “admit rate” look, in some cases, spectacularly exclusive. (Stanford’s acceptance rate for students who applied last year was 5.07 percent, the lowest in the country. Harvard’s was 5.8 percent.) Exclusivity may not be a rational basis for a college search, but it does give parents bragging rights.
To help colleges reach those potential applicants, the College Board and the ACT, the big testing agencies, sell student names and information to colleges. In 2013, each student’s name fetched 37 cents, according to Inside Higher Ed. More than 3.2 million students take those tests.
College enrollment managers mine that data, looking for prospects. According to a higher education consulting firm report, in 2013, private colleges spent $2,433 per new student to bring in their new recruits; public colleges spent $457 per student.
Not all colleges were taken in by the software hiccup that mistakenly created Bill. His stack of mail, while sizable, was nothing compared with what the real student in the house was getting. But he was invited to apply for a merit scholarship at Washington University in St. Louis, “based on your academic achievement and scores,” and the University of Miami was very persistent in trying to get him down for a visit.
Some of the marketing was targeted in curious ways: Bill received mail from the Milwaukee School of Engineering; my daughter did not. An engineering bias against girls? But then she got an invitation from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and Bill heard nothing from them. They were both invited to join the United States Marines. A United States Army recruiter even called our home, looking for Bill.
They both also received separate but identical invitations to compete in a sketchy-sounding scholarship beauty contest, which really made me wonder who else besides the testing companies is buying student information.
High school seniors and parents suffering through this season of high hopes and even higher anxiety — the acceptance season for the class of 2019 — may want to greet all of the flattery from colleges with level heads and a heavy dose of skepticism. As pleasing as it is to believe that dozens of colleges across the country really, really want to see you, what they actually want to see is only your application.
Of course the flip side of that is true as well: if they reject you, don’t take it personally.