College marketing an education in how to generate cash, buzz

Top universities said to be soliciting applicants who have little chance of getting admitted; 'misleading'

May 13, 2011 @ 1:49 pm

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((Bloomberg News))

Nicole Ederer was delighted when Columbia University and Duke University wooed her with e-mails and letters after she scored 214 out of 240 on her preliminary SAT college entrance exam junior year.

The 18-year-old high school senior in Thornwood, New York, said she spent about $780 on 12 applications after mailings from top schools like Duke, which sent a wall poster. She was rejected from Duke, Columbia and Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and plans to attend the University of Maryland.

“I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, someone is interested in me,'” Ederer said in an interview. “They attract you with an e-mail and a few pamphlets and big envelopes filled with a ton of information and make you want to go to that school, and they don't accept you.”

The deluge of correspondence from even the most hard-to- get-into colleges is raising false expectations among thousands of students, swelling school coffers with application fees as high as $90 apiece and making colleges seem more selective by soliciting and then rejecting applicants. College applications are soaring even as the number of high school graduates fell 2.2 percent this year from a peak in the 2007-2008, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Jon Reider, director of college counseling at San Francisco University High School, advises students to view e-mails and mailings skeptically, especially from Harvard University, the most selective college in the country. Reider called its mailings “not honorable” and “misleading.”

“The overwhelming majority of students receiving these mailings will not be admitted in the end, and Harvard knows this well,” said Reider, a former admissions officer at Stanford University.

Selling Names

Consumer groups said that the nonprofit College Board, which owns the SAT college admission test, and its nonprofit rival, ACT Inc., are making money by selling personal details about teenagers. The companies collect information on millions of test takers and both sell names and information to colleges at 33 cents a name.

Harvard College, which accepted a record low 6.2 percent of applicants this year, markets to high school students because it wants to find the most talented class, said William Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions and financial aid. The school informs students “it's a highly competitive process,” he said.

“There are so many students out there in the world who might not automatically think about Harvard as a place to go,” said Fitzsimmons, who declined to say how many students the university contacts. Harvard, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, received almost 35,000 applications this year, a record.

“The odds of reaching the top of anything are not good but is that a reason not to try?” said Fitzsimmons.

‘Unrealistic Expectations'

Yale University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology are scaling back their marketing, saying they don't want to encourage kids who likely won't be accepted. Yale, which admitted 7.4 percent of applicants this year, cut its mailings by a third since 2005 to 80,000, Jeffrey Brenzel, dean of undergraduate admissions, said in an interview.

“I feel obligated to be reasonable in recruiting so we're not creating unrealistic expectations of applicants,” Brenzel said. “If a student has only the most remote chance in admission, I feel it's inappropriate to try to persuade a student to send an application.”

Colleges reap both prestige and money from the soaring stacks of applications.

“Total application count is taken as some kind of proxy for school popularity,” Yale's Brenzel said.

Millions in Fees

Harvard charges $75 to apply, which would amount to $2.6 million in revenue, minus waivers for low-income applicants. Harvard declined to say how much revenue was generated, though Fitzsimmons said the school doesn't make a profit.

Stanford charges $90, the highest fee for U.S. students among more than 400 colleges that use the Common Application. This year it received about $2.6 million in fees, after giving 17 percent of applicants waivers. The money pays for the readers, software and technical support needed to process the applications, said Bob Patterson, director of admissions of Stanford, near Palo Alto, California.

Duke in Durham, North Carolina, which accepted 13 percent of a record 29,689 applicants this year, sent multiple mailings to Ederer. The college contacts about 50,000 prospective applicants annually through electronic and paper mailings based on their PSAT scores, said Christoph Guttentag, the school's dean of admissions. Duke doesn't know everything about a student until it receives an application, which includes official grades, recommendations and high school activities, he said.

Duke's Marketing

“We don't want to lead a student on,” Guttentag said. “Nobody does it perfectly. It's not unlike being contacted by a search firm and being asked to apply for a job that you don't get.”

All members of the Ivy League, eight colleges in the northeast U.S. including Harvard, Yale and Columbia, received record applications this year. Matthew Weiss, a senior at Latin School of Chicago, said he heard from Columbia just before the January application deadline.

“When you submit an application to Columbia, you will be following in the footsteps of some of the most notable leaders of our time, including Barack Obama, Allen Ginsberg and Margaret Mead,” according to an e-mail dated Dec. 23. Weiss didn't apply because he wasn't interested in the school. Columbia, in New York, received almost 35,000 applications this year, a record.

“Matt's a solid student with a lot to offer; however, he is not in the top 1 percent in terms of ACT score, or his GPA isn't at the top of the class,” his mother, Sharon Weiss, 48, said in an interview.

Understanding Opportunities

Columbia makes the contacts to ensure that students from a variety of backgrounds and regions “understand our academic opportunities and campus community,” Jessica Marinaccio, dean of undergraduate admissions, said in an e-mailed statement.

Schools begin their marketing efforts by buying names of students from a variety of sources, including the College Board. The New York-based company said more than 2 million students in grades 9 to 12 take the SAT each academic year.

The group's database includes some 6.5 million students -- 5.1 million with e-mail addresses. More than 1,100 colleges and universities use the company's Student Search Service, said Jennifer Topiel, a spokeswoman.

The College Board took in $60 million in revenue from enrollment services, according to its most recent tax filing for the year ended June 2009. That amounted to almost 10 percent of total revenue of $623 million.

42 Questions

Students who take the PSAT are asked to “opt-in” to the search service on their exam answer sheets to let schools and scholarship programs provide materials on educational opportunities and financial aid. They are also asked for e-mail addresses, a self-reported grade average, racial or ethnic group, religion and college major. They can also opt out.

Parents aren't required to give consent to answer the questions.

SAT test-takers are asked 42 questions including checking off any of 35 sports they have participated or plan to participate in, and desired college size and setting. Colleges don't have access to questions about parental income, whether the student has a disability and parents' highest level of education.

“What the College Board and ACT have done, under the radar screen of parents and regulators, is turn the teens' educational pursuits into a profit-making opportunity,” said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a nonprofit consumer-protection advocacy group in Washington.

Advocacy Work

While the Federal Trade Commission's 1998 Children's Online Privacy Protection Act prohibits personal information from being collected online from children 12 and under without “verifiable parental consent,” teenagers aren't covered by the law and neither are nonprofit companies like the College Board, Chester said.

Student information provided to colleges “really is a service to the students and the colleges,” said Kathleen Steinberg, a College Board spokeswoman. She said the money helps fund “advocacy work and fee waivers” for almost 20 percent of students in last year's graduating class who took the SAT, which costs $47.

The ACT, based in Iowa City, Iowa, took in $7.5 million in revenue from its Educational Opportunity Service for the most recent fiscal year, which ended last Aug. 31, said Steve Kappler, assistant vice president for market strategy and services.

“We're not doing this to drive ACT profits up,” Kappler said in an interview. “Any profit, which isn't much, we sink back into educational research, fee waivers -- anything that we can do that fits into our mission.”

Brandeis Recruiting

Brandeis University used a College Board enrollment tool called Descriptor Plus to target, market and recruit students from ‘high-end high schools and wealthy suburban neighborhoods,'' according to a 2006 case study written by Sarah Parrott and Jonathan Epstein, who at the time worked in research and planning for the Waltham, Massachusetts-based university.

Brandeis' uses of Descriptor Plus described in the paper “don't reflect our current methodology,” said Bill Burger, a spokesman for Brandeis. “We're not sure how we'll be using that tool going forward.”

Harvard, Yale in New Haven, Connecticut, and Amherst College in Amherst, Massachusetts, have successfully used the search service to find minority students, according to their deans of admission.

‘Appropriate' Pool

Like Yale, MIT, which accepted 9.6 percent of applicants this year, has cut back its marketing to prospective students. Last year, the Cambridge, Massachusetts, college reduced by about 40 percent the number of students it contacted, eliminating unsolicited mail to those who scored lower on the math section of the PSAT. Students who scored below 640 on the math section of the SAT generally weren't admitted last year.

“We really only want to communicate with students that we think we're likely to be admitting,' Stuart Schmill, MIT dean of admissions, said in an interview. ‘‘Ideally, we would have a smaller but highly appropriate applicant pool.”

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