Universities have long used a trusted intermediary to identify prospective students. But what if and when a new intermediary emerges?
Increasing testing-optional policies could persuade more people, especially low-income and minority students, to opt out of the tests, meaning colleges may not be able to find them.
A team of researchers weighs that question in a new report released Tuesday by the Institute for College Access & Success, an education advocacy group known as TICAS. It’s an enlightening read for anyone interested in student recruitment and the vast unregulated industry that helps universities generate “leads”. This industry, the report says, “is undergoing a radical transformation that threatens to lead to a college access crisis.”
First, let’s review a bit of history. The standardized testing industry has long been the primary intermediary in recruitment. High school students taking the ACT, SAT, and Advanced Placement exams may choose to share their contact information with colleges, which purchase “student lists” from ACT Inc. and the College Board, both nonprofit organizations, as well as other vendors. (The College Board administers the SAT.)
These lists contain specific criteria about students (for example, test score range, high school grade point average, and zip codes). Universities use this information to recruit them (i.e. bombard them with flyers and emails).
In short, student lists are the lifeblood of admissions. But they are problematic, the researchers argue. Last week TICAS published the first two of three related reports. Both asserted that student lists perpetuate racial and socioeconomic inequality by allowing universities to systematically exclude low-income and underrepresented minority students from recruitment funnels. How? On the one hand, universities can use search filters to concentrate on specific geodemographic categories, prioritizing students from well-resourced institutions and affluent areas. This may help explain why a given student hears from 30 colleges while another with a similar academic record hears from only a few.
That said, there’s an important paradox here: Student lists, however imperfect, play a crucial role in college access, the researchers write. According to recent research commissioned by the College Board, students who are contacted by colleges through the College Board’s Student Finder Service are 23% more likely to apply to a participating college than students with similar backgrounds who have opted out. Nearly 20 percent of students invited to apply to a college through the Student Finder Service also enroll, increasing the likelihood that someone will enroll at the college that purchased their contact information in a 22 percent. These impacts are double for traditionally underserved students,” the research found.
Students can access this service through BigFuture, the College Board’s college planning website, even if they don’t take the organization’s tests. But if a student’s name doesn’t end up in a certain database in the first place, a college can’t find them there, or sometimes anywhere. So what happens in a world where fewer college applicants take the ACT and SAT, and may not know about BigFuture?
Ozan Jaquette, associate professor of higher education at the University of California, Los Angeles and principal investigator of the Student Roster Project, predicts that the pandemic-driven increase in optional testing policies will persuade more and more students, especially those with low incomes. and underrepresented minority students, to choose not to take the tests altogether. “For better or worse, testing agencies have been an essential mechanism for college admissions,” he says. “If these agencies are not leaders in the student listing industry, do we end up with something that is better or worse than what we had before? Will the new sources of student listings have the same coverage as the ACT and the College Board previously, when all students thought they had to take these tests?
These questions bring us back to the intermediary. The student listing industry has long included a large number of for-profit vendors who sell data about potential college applicants. Sources of student list data include college search engine websites and college planning software used by high schools. EAB, a large enrollment consultancy, is among the entities the report describes as poised to gobble up more of the student list market and perhaps become the intermediary Unlike ACT Inc. and the College Board, which sell names to colleges at a “per-prospect” price, the report says, EAB and other companies maintain unique databases of student names and restrict access to colleges that pay for subscription and/or consultancy. services.
That business model, the report says, raises policy concerns that federal agencies, such as the Federal Trade Commission, should consider regulating. “We are concerned that, without major government intervention, the death of the SAT/ACT will make students unwittingly dependent on for-profit companies that maximize profits by providing prospective names only to paying colleges expensive subscription or consulting services. Equitable access to college is too important to leave to the market today, and that will only be truer as new for-profit players enter the space.”
It’s important to remember a couple of things here. First, the ACT and SAT, while diminishing in importance, are alive and well at the moment. In addition, student lists are tools: institutional leaders set enrollment goals and priorities that these tools help them achieve. “If a university wants to enroll only wealthy students,” the researchers write, “regulating student rolls will not force the university to enroll poor students.”
Still, the nature of enrollment tools—how they actually work—is important, the researchers argue. The choices colleges make when purchasing names, they write, “are structured by the architecture of student list products: which prospects are included in the product, the targeting behaviors permitted by product and the targeting behaviors encouraged by the product.”
In the paper published this week by TICAS, Jaquette, along with Karina G. Salazar, an assistant professor at the Center for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Arizona, and Crystal Han, a data scientist, propose an alternative to the existing student list industry – a ‘public option’. That is, a free and robust national database loaded with student contact information, high school GPA, and courses taken.
Their idea, the researchers acknowledge, would require immense cooperation among states, districts and schools while also posing a number of technical challenges. Besides, who would pay for it?
“The idea is kind of pie-in-the-sky,” says Jaquette.
But he hopes it sparks a bigger discussion about how student lists can work for and against college access.
“There are students who are going to go to college no matter what,” says Jaquette. “For them, the list of students could affect which institution they go to. But then there are students on the fringes of going to college or not, or going to a two-year college instead of a four-year college . It’s important for universities to identify and reach out to these students, so that these students feel wanted.”