College search: a point-counterpoint

College search is a 2-way street: students are looking for schools that will be a good match for their strengths, interests, and goals.

Simultaneously, colleges and universities want to enroll applicants who will help them meet their institutional missions, priorities, and budgets.

The question for students is whether they want to drive down the traditional marketing avenue or take a detour?

When students register for standardized tests, including the PSAT, SAT, ACT, TOEFL, SAT, and AP tests, there is an option to check a box indicating their willingness to share their information with universities. Colleges and universities contract with the College Board or ACT to access databases and purchase names and contact information. This allows them to build what are known as “search campaigns” to identify high school students who seem to be good matches for their school.

They can segment their search by an incredible number of factors, from intended major and GPA to geographic location, extracurricular interests, and shoe size (okay…maybe not that last one). Student information is sold for a little over 50 cents per name.

With schools purchasing thousands of names and then producing and mailing letters or brochures to all those potential candidates, this part of the recruitment process is extremely expensive for colleges (you wondered what those application fees were for?) and lucrative for testing agencies.

Should you check the box?

In writing our book, The Truth about College Admission: A Family Guide to Getting In and Staying Together, and the accompanying workbook, there was a lot we agreed upon as co-authors. We believe, for example, that the college admission experience should be one of unity, connection, and opportunity. There were also a few points where we did not always see eye to eye based on our roles as a high school counselor and college admission officer. The first disagreement we encountered was on this topic of search.

We believe that the college admission experience should be one of unity, connection, and opportunity.

Brennan, as a school counselor, had been telling students for decades not to check the box. Rick, as an admission leader, had been buying names for just as long and encouraging testers to check, check, check. As you consider your own college search, we thought it would be helpful for us to share our respective rationales.

Point: The high school perspective

Consider that equation outlined above where testing agencies make lots of money selling names and colleges get lots of data on potential applicants. What is missing from the formula? The student. What do they get? A whole lot of glossy brochures, a cluttered inbox, and information overload. It is for this reason I have warned students not to check the box that permits the sale of their private information; unless of course they are going to get a share of the profits.

My belief is that the current state of enrollment management is not responsible enough to handle student data properly and the climate around admission marketing just complicates choice.

» Read: Test-optional and test-blind admissions 

When students receive enticing mailers from colleges and universities to which they have no realistic odds of being accepted, it does more harm than good. Likewise, when colleges end up with applicants that they have no chance of yielding (getting them to enroll if admitted), it adds up to a flawed enrollment strategy.

When students receive enticing mailers from colleges and universities to which they have no realistic odds of being accepted, it does more harm than good.

In a race to inflate application numbers, colleges and universities often take the shotgun approach to building their application funnel. They aim their marketing weapons broadly and shoot rapid fire, hoping something hits the mark. I get that schools must broaden their reach and try to entice applicants who might not be in their pool, but this seemingly haphazard way of identifying good matches is ill conceived.

No doubt, students should expose themselves to schools that might not be on their radar or known in their community, but there are more thoughtful approaches to discovering schools than checking a box and leaving it to fate. Searching for college is not a passive experience. It requires self-reflection, research, and an open mind.

» Read: How many colleges should you apply to?

Students, take charge, and get yourself on the lists that you want to be on. Do your homework and use your resources to identify colleges that will potentially meet your needs and wants. Your school counselor, teachers, friends, and family might suggest schools, and you can also conduct online searches, attend college fairs, and be intentional about expanding your list to research and visit. Think outside the box rather than simply checking it.

Counterpoint: The college perspective

Let me start by saying I’m not defending or promoting standardized testing or the testing agencies – they are big businesses with powerful lobbies whose non-profit status is as suspect as Qatar being awarded the World Cup.

That said, my response may have tones of the Cabinet Battle from the play Hamilton: “That was a real nice declaration. Welcome to the present, we’re running a real nation.” In the scene, Alexander Hamilton questions Thomas Jefferson’s appreciation of the big picture and practical realities. The truth is, while some students may be able to “take charge” as you suggest, the majority of high school students need to be prompted in daily life, let alone for something as big as considering college.

If we lived in a country where school counselors were prioritized and funded at appropriate levels, perhaps I’d be more confident about students being able to use their “resources to identify colleges that will potentially meet your needs and wants”. But 91% of American high school students attend public schools where the average counselor caseload is 500:1.

Why do colleges invest so much money in athletics? Because 2 hours on TV or even 12 seconds on SportsCenter puts a name, brand, and idea in front of students and families in ways other marketing dollars never could. Why do colleges buy names from SAT/ACT? Because students are busy, parents are busy, and left on our own, humans generally default to what they know or have heard of.

We are creatures of habit and breaking those patterns either takes energy and resolve, or an outside force. In this case, yes, I’m suggesting that force is a postcard or brochure going right into the home.

Why do colleges invest so much money in athletics? Because 2 hours on TV or even 12 seconds on SportsCenter puts a name, brand, and idea in front of students and families in ways other marketing dollars never could.

Now, let me be clear, do I think “spray and pray” marketing is the best method? No. Do I wish and hope less money will go into College Board coffers in the years ahead? Absolutely. Do I think there are some colleges whose search or solicitations can be misleading? Yes. But (and again to hat tip Hamilton), the “issue on the table” is whether or not students should check the box.

Categorically, I say yes. Early in the process, when a student is taking a test or starting to think about going to college, their goal is to see as big of a picture as possible. Checking the box allows exposure and possibilities. Invitations to visit campus, information about scholarship opportunities, fee waivers, hosted programs in your local area – all of this comes from opting in to receive information. Let’s be honest – in our culture, too many people get stuck in their own echo chambers. You can’t “think outside the box” until you realize you are in one.

To check or not to check

As Shakespeare wrote, “That is the question. Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, And, by opposing, end them?” Whatever you decide, the take-home message is: the choice is yours.

» Read: Calculate the earning potential of your degree

Students, whether you check the box or take a more intentional, hands-on approach, you control 75% of what happens in college admission. Add your voice to this debate and exercise your agency. What we both agree on is that you should be sure to recycle all that mail. Let’s work together to save the world 1 college brochure at a time.

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