Earlier this week, Indiana University stopped accepting applications for automatic academic scholarships for the coming school year. And already the university has received a record number of interested students—a success that comes with a price.
Every year Indiana University recruitment officials pay testing institutions, such as The College Board, for access to contact information for students who score well on standardized tests, including the PSAT.
Vice Provost for Enrollment Management Roger Thompson said IU uses the info to target thousands of “suspects” who might be attracted to the school and who are sent postcards asking that they consider IU. IU officials use an online order form to purchase information on students who have achieved certain scores and for specific demographics. This year, the university’s total bill for purchased names came to about $100,000.
But only about seven percent of those students ever responded to IU’s postcard. But Thompson said that mailing is just the beginning.
“I don’t view the postcard as a direct 1 to 1 correlation, so the fact that something like 6 -8 percent of students respond directly to the postcard. I view the postcard more like a billboard on the interstate,” Thompson said. “If you drive by McDonalds billboards repeatedly and you’re on a long drive from here to Florida you may be more inclined to stop at McDonalds at some point, but it may not be at the next exit, right there.”
Besides, Thompson pointed out, a $100,000 expenditure is offset by just 6-in-state or 3-out-of-state students’ tuition. All told, the Chronicle for Higher Education estimates IU actually spends about $1,000 less per student on recruitment than comparable universities.
Christopher Wells, Interim Vice President of Admission and Financial Aid at DePauw University in Greencastle, says his school also pays for names, though he declined to give an exact price, other than to say it’s a “six figure number.” However, Wells says DePauw gets about 1 in 6 targeted students to respond with an inquiry about the school.
“The alternative mode to get to those thousand high schools would be go there and have a high school visit. That’s, budget wise, that’s $100 to get you from Indiana to visit a school in California,” Wells said. “I can’t get anybody to fly there, stay in a hotel, eat their meals and meet with the folks for $100. My options are, well I can’t do California because it’s too expensive or I can do California by purchasing these names. Well, I’ll do it by purchasing these names, and that’s fairly compelling.”
For both institutions buying students names lets admissions officers reach out to students they might otherwise have no way to contact and Thompson said his feeling is that those contacts sometimes go even farther.
“You create energy momentum and excitement about Indiana University,” Thompson said. “When a high school sophomore or junior receives a mailer in their mailbox from IU we believe they’re more than likely to go in and tell their friends, ‘hey I got something from IU the yesterday.’ So you may buy one name, but you may get three or four other names that then contact you as a result of it.”
But West Lafayette High School senior Ashley Carbino says she’s not so sure about that buzz.
“I don’t remember if I got anything that was worth telling my friends,” Carbino said. “I mean they all pretty much know where I want to go and everything.”
And Cameron Benning a junior at Lafayette’s McCutcheon High School, says that’s not the kind of thing he and his friends talk about.
“No I don’t think that’s really legitimate,” Benning said. I mean, it kind of just depends on wherever the students wants to go. It’s up to them not to their friends really.”
Besides, if student A received a post card and told his friends, causing student B to contact that school, Thompson says there’s some likelihood student B may not be the kind of student the school hopes to attract.
Both Thompson and Wells say they are working to build their school’s online recruiting presence, or find new ways to reach increasingly sought-after demographic groups like minority students or students from regions in which graduation rates are improving. But for now, while the return rates appear low, purchasing names as a means of college recruitment is actually one of the most cost-effective options.