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Colleges Track Their Prospects. What Can You Do?

colleges collect data

Do you know what is common between streaming services and colleges? They all collect data about you and assess you as a customer. This issue has been discussed lately on major news outlets, and it sounds like something very current. Yet is it a new, emerging controversy?

Colleges were buying student data from the beginning of the 1970s. However, in those pre-internet days, all they could access were lists of names with some basic information. They were lucky to get anything more than the location and preferred majors the students themselves reported while filling out the SAT papers.

Now, companies that specialize in collecting student data, such as Capture Higher Ed, work with third-party data brokers. With their help, they pull consumer information from databases of loyalty-card members, subscribers, and property owners. They also can check your ZIP code in the U.S. Census to see an approximate household income for that area. All this they sell to colleges.

What tracking means for you as a student?

"Enrollment officers must report average GPA, average test scores, revenue, discount rates, financial aid dollars awarded, ethnic breakdown... The list is endless. Enrollment officers are steeped in data," says Angel B. Pérez, CEO of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. Although colleges claim they don't factor in students' financial positions during the admission process, they have this information beforehand and definitely use it for their marketing campaigns.

This is especially true and understandable for smaller private colleges that depend on tuition money to survive and grow. They are interested in attracting more students who can afford to pay for their tuition to balance the high-achievers with financial needs. According to Nathan Mueller, an econometric modeling expert, "The point of it is trying to create predictability for the institution."

There is an obvious downside to this approach. Students from lower-income families receive less encouragement and outreach. As a result, they don't apply to the colleges they would have been admitted to if they tried. That is called an "undermatch." They don't understand how the financial aid system works and are scared away by the high tuition costs. Whereas there are many schools whose admission process is indeed need-blind and where high achievers (perhaps, with a little bit of my paper writer help) could get on a full-ride scholarship.

Of course, there is an upside as well. With the advent of Big Data, schools can use psychographic data to complement demographic information. That allows them to target their students more precisely. They used this opportunity to buy fewer names but be selective. Colleges want to raise their yield and graduation rates. That means they want to attract and admit students who will likely accept and actually enroll, be successful in their school, and graduate eventually. Therefore, they model their data on the pool of their most satisfied graduates and target similar cohorts.

That is definitely a boon for students too. Instead of the marketing vortex of emails and leaflets, you are contacted by a selection of schools where you are most likely to be happy and prosperous.

Can you do anything about it?

What if you are not very happy about the passive role you play in all this? Well, even before you apply, you can influence your data and have your say in the matching process.

Your demonstrated interest

Some schools, like Cornell, for example, outright deny monitoring the demonstrated interest. However, according to the investigation conducted last year by Douglas MacMillan and Nick Anderson, at least 44 U.S. colleges collaborate with consulting firms to track visitors to their websites. Tracking software reports how the applicant got there, pages they visited, and how much time they spend on each one. Is it important?


First, many colleges have a so-called "affinity index" based on the shown interest. The higher the index, the higher the probability the student will enroll if admitted. Hence, the higher the chances of admission. Easy! So merely by showing your interest, you can boost your chances and show that you are not just a casual applier.

Second, and that's really encouraging, the vice president of the Capture Higher Ed, Thom Golden, says, "there is a significant amount of inbound traffic that's organic." This means students just look for colleges online without any prior incentive from the college. It's all in your hands!

What can you do to amp that metric up?

  • - Visit the college's official website instead of finding information elsewhere. Spend some time there actually learning more about the school.
  • - Take a virtual tour around campus.
  • - Ask for more information. That is a standard option on most websites. Enter your email in a designated field or subscribe to a newsletter, and emails will follow full of details and embedded links. Click those links and study the pages they lead to.
  • - Follow the college's social media pages and engage with them. Ask questions.
  • - Do the usual old-school stuff: contact an admissions officer or advisor in your school, go to college events, join webinars, and apply for an early decision.

There is just one caveat for online activity, though. To be one big bundle of data for them, you should use one email. "Make sure your social media accounts are anchored using the email used to register with the college or take your SAT," advises Alan Katzman, an expert on using social media in the college application process.

By the way, speaking of your SAT…

Your information from the testing firms

When you fill out the questionnaire for your SAT, PSAT, or ACT exams, the testing firm, such as College Board, asks you some non-compulsory questions. These are usually about your grades, interests, college plans, desired major, family income, and other things. Answering them allows you to participate in the Student Search Program if you decide to opt in. This program matches you with colleges and scholarships.

The questionnaire also asks for your consent on sharing those data. If you check the "yes" box, they will be free to sell this info to the interested colleges for 42 cents a name. If you want to be on the radar, it's in your interest to provide accurate information and agree on sharing it. However, if you want to be the one making a choice, you can decline by checking the "no" box. Again, you are in control.

Your academic portfolio

However, even if colleges do count in the demonstrated interest and other metrics, they are still only secondary. Your academic achievements still have the most weight. Courses you take, grades you receive, your test scores, your essays, and writing supplements – all this is entirely in your power.

As the dean of enrollment management at EAB, Madeline Rhyneer, puts it, "Students have more control than they feel like they do, and we try to remind them that there's more power in their hands than they often feel is the case, as they're putting their whole life in front of anonymous admission committees."

In the world of information, it's vital to manage your data, or at least understand how data collection works. You can and should have control over who knows what about you. True, remaining completely anonymous is almost impossible nowadays. Yet the question you should also ask yourself is whether you will benefit from your anonymity. Be mindful and be seen if you think you that's in your interests.

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