WASHINGTON _ When Laurie Oberhausen of Fort Wayne, Ind., scored a 1320 on her Scholastic Aptitude Test two years ago, she suddenly found herself pursued by colleges eager to lure her to their campuses.
Photo-filled brochures, applications, personal letters and phone calls came nearly every week. The college campaign to win her enrollment lasted more than 12 months-from spring break of her junior year through three-quarters of her senior year.
“It seemed like whenever I’d go to the mailbox, there were five of six different colleges sending out information on their schools,” she said. “It was almost overwhelming.”
Oberhausen, a recent graduate of Fort Wayne’s Homestead High School, is one of the thousands of students who are prime targets of intense – some would say relentless – college recruitment programs.
In a trend that’s transforming higher education, universities today buy enormous quantities of information to recruit students who fit their profile for success. Some even turn to professional recruiters, key players in the educational world, to find the hottest prospects among high school students. Often the schools pay thousands of dollars for research on potential students.
Colleges are looking for the best candidates at the lowest cost, said Dale Gough, director of professional development and international programs at the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.
“Institutions don’t want to spend their recruiting dollars attempting to recruit a student or population of students,” Gough said, “who aren’t going to be a good match academically or financially.”
These ardent recruitment tactics are shifting education more toward the business world, acknowledge some educators and recruiters. And the campaigns raise questions about privacy, propriety and the pressures of pursuit.
“It’s a process that colleges have come to realize is necessary,” said Kevin Crockett, vice president at the USA Group Noel Levitz consulting firm in Iowa. “They simply can’t afford to communicate with everyone.”
Joyce E. Smith, executive director of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, applauds the overall effort to get more information to students. But the new tactics, she said, sometimes focus too much on students who are on the educational fast track, with access to counselors and frequent practice on the standardized tests.
“Students of color, multicultural and first-generation students generally do not take the test early or often,” said Smith, who previously worked as director of the College Board’s Student Search Service. “And if you don’t appreciate that you might go to college,” she added, “you don’t take the test.”
The tests are important as a recruitment tool because organizations like American College Testing and the College Board – which administers the Scholastic Aptitude Test and the Advanced Placement exams – collect information on students from surveys as part of the registration process.
Among other responses, the questionnaires ask for a student’s name, address, high school, ethnicity, career interests and grade point average. Testing agencies then take these responses and sell them to colleges. Some colleges, in turn, also sell the information to recruitment consulting firms.
Students aren’t required to fill in all the information, said Kelley Hayden, director of corporate communications at American College Testing. But most of them do. “They’re interested in getting information from colleges,” Hayden said.
Many students don’t know just how much information colleges are getting about them.
Consulting firm Noel Levitz, for example, collects clues to students’ financial backgrounds when it puts together its lists. With only a student’s address, the company can determine what kind of neighborhood a student lives in and the average incomes in these areas. The consultants give the neighborhoods nicknames such as “Lap of Luxury” or “Home, Sweet Home,” depending on the particular demographics and income levels.
Zachary Myers, a recent graduate of Detroit Country Day School in Beverly Hills, Mich., was pursued by top schools like Yale and Harvard after he achieved a perfect score on his Scholastic Aptitude Test. But Myers knew that recruitment was based on more than his test scores. He suspected the colleges had more detailed and personal information on him. “Come on,” he said, “you can do anything you want looking at people now.”
But Noel Levitz consultants are quick to argue that they are not breaching students’ privacy. The economic information, the consultants say, is collected on a group of households – not on individuals.
For colleges, the cost of all this information is hardly cheap. Sequitur Corporation, a consulting firm based in Atlanta, Ga., charges $75,000 for its basic package. That includes admissions software and a specially set-up computer to use it. Each additional computer costs $950. Noel Levitz clients pay an average of $17,000 to $34,000 for the company’s enrollment recruiting services.
And colleges both large and small are shelling out the money. Noel Levitz has worked for more than 1,500 schools in its 26 years of consulting. Sequitur’s client list includes schools such as Bowdoin College, a small liberal arts college in Brunswick, Maine, and the University of Texas at Austin, one of the country’s largest universities.
“It’s not just the struggling smaller colleges who are eagerly pursuing students,” said Sally Rubenstone, an admission counselor at Smith College in Northampton, Mass. She has co-authored three books on the college admissions process, including “College Admissions: A Crash Course for Panicked Parents.”
Rubenstone sees confusion as one of the major drawbacks of intensive recruiting. Colleges send out massive amounts of “propaganda,” she said, and students are flattered into thinking schools are genuinely interested. “They send very welcoming letters and friendly brochures to students who are ultimately going to be denied,” Rubenstone said.
All of this is part of the growing business of education, where the bottom line – how many good students can a college get for the least amount of money – is vital. “Education has always been a business,” admitted Jeffrey Arnold, vice president of Sequitur Corporation. “It’s just not always been a very efficient business.”
For Laurie Oberhausen of Fort Wayne, Ind., the new recruiting tactics helped her find her ideal school. Buried in the onslaught of mail she received from colleges was information about Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas.
Students and admissions staff at Texas Christian kept calling to let her know they were interested, Oberhausen said. And she was eventually offered a half-tuition financial aid package, the best she received from any other school. So she accepted. But without that initial contact and the pursuit, Oberhausen said, “I wouldn’t have explored the option of going there.”