“I got an email from Princeton,” a senior proudly told me when I visited her Maryland high school. The student with a 3.7 GPA and a 1350 SAT score showed me the message, which encouraged her to apply to take advantage of “the tremendous opportunities” Princeton offered to students like her. She sent her application because she thought she was being recruited. She was denied. “It seems some schools recruit you,” she said later, “just so they can reject you. Why do they bother if we don’t have a chance?”
This anecdote comes from Jeffrey Selingo’s book, Who Gets in and Why, and mirrors conversations I regularly have with students. They may spend weeks or months building their college list only to add a college out of the blue that sends them a glossy and expensive brochure. Students feel flattered that the college targeted them and are hopeful that it means they are a competitive candidate for admission, but unfortunately, that may not be the case. Here, we dive into the reasons why brochures are filling your mailbox, and your email is brimming with spam from colleges.
The Admissions Funnel
College admissions is a business that brings in significant revenue. Let’s look at the admissions funnel to understand the approach colleges use to drive up applications.
Building the Prospect Pool
Wonder how colleges get your email and mailing address? Often, it’s because you’ve taken the PSAT, SAT or ACT. It’s common practice for colleges to purchase names and test scores from testing agencies, including the College Board and ACT, even when you have not requested your scores be sent to those colleges! In their 2017 recruitment report, the University of Illinois indicated they purchased over 70,000 student names from the College Board and more than 8,000 from ACT.* That year, they enrolled only 6,837 students in their freshmen class. In a recent report on post-Covid recruitment strategies, Maguire Associates noted that 72% of respondents from college admissions offices increased their spending on search data from 2019 to 2022.**
Students are targeted based on a college’s institutional priorities. Even colleges with only a few thousand students in their freshmen class will send tens of thousands of brochures and emails to prospective students because of their test score, intended major, or even demographic information like race, family income or geographic location. Colleges also use this data to encourage students to look into their (often pricey) summer camps and programs. If you receive a brochure in the mail from a college, does that mean you’re competitive for admission? Maybe. But, it definitely means the college wants you to apply. Why? A high number of applications brings money and prestige. Consider the freshmen applications received for the following schools in 2021 and the resulting revenue:
Harvard: 39,506 applications, $2.9 million
Stanford: 55,471 applications, $4.9 million
University of Michigan: 79,743 applications, $5.9 million
University of California Berkeley: 112,820 applications, $7.8 million
Selecting the Class
For highly selective colleges, a high number of applications brings in revenue. Also, it drives the admit rate down, perpetuating the college’s demand and allowing the college’s rankings to soar–a factor frequently used in college rankings including, U.S. News and World Report. Here are the 2021 freshmen admit rates for those same colleges above.
University of Michigan: 20.2%
University of California Berkeley: 14.5%
Enrollment and Melt
Summer melt refers to the number of students who paid their enrollment deposit who do not show up to campus in the fall. Long after the May 1 enrollment deadline has passed, colleges will continue to engage with admitted students throughout the summer–sometimes even sending swag, like t-shirts or college flags, to ensure that students (and their tuition dollars) arrive in the fall.
Students, as you hear from colleges, it’s okay to be flattered, but I encourage you to use a consumer mindset as you consider the school. Stay true to your priorities! Does the school have what you’re looking for? If not, send that brochure to the recycle bin and spend your time engaging with the schools that do match your interests and academic profile.