Chapter 1: Selling a College: The Endless Pursuit of Students 1 Selling a College The Endless Pursuit of Students
The glossy college brochure. It’s become a rite of passage for American teenagers. So many over the years that they weigh down the mail carriers, fill boxes in bedrooms, cover kitchen tables.
Colleges would eventually have found their way into our mailboxes—and later into our email boxes—no matter what, but every innovation needs its Thomas Edison, the person who sees around the corner and speeds change up. For college marketing that man was Bill Royall.
The moment that changed everything took place on a spring day in 1988 at a conference having nothing to do with colleges. Bill Royall’s direct mail firm in Richmond, Virginia, didn’t have any higher education clients back then; he worked with politicians and with nonprofit organizations that needed to raise money. He had come to Washington, D.C., to talk with people who ran New England summer camps.
The camps wanted to expand their geographic reach, and they invited Royall to the meeting to talk about how direct mail might help in attracting new families. While political campaigns were Royall’s focus, he told the summer camp leaders that direct mail was increasingly an effective tool for selling all kinds of products. There was no difference between hawking a candidate for Congress and peddling a summer camp to parents. Better data and technology, he said, allowed mailing lists to be correlated with demographics and statistics from a variety of sources.
But Royall’s pitch that day fell flat. “They weren’t interested, at all,” he remembered.
After the speech, as Royall waited for the elevator at the Capital Hilton, a man approached him. He introduced himself as Robert Jones, the admissions director at Hampden-Sydney College, a private all-men’s college in Virginia. He had heard Royall’s speech and asked if he had ever managed mailings for colleges. “We didn’t have any clients in higher education,” Royall recalled telling him, “but there was no reason we couldn’t.”
A few months later, Hampden-Sydney hired Royall & Company. When Bill Royall started digging into the college’s marketing strategy, he was stunned not only by how the Virginia campus recruited students but also by what seemed to be common practices among many other schools, as well. Colleges purchased names of high schoolers much as they do today, but they were buying what Royall considered tiny quantities, limited to the names of juniors. Hampden-Sydney, for instance, bought only the names of students enrolled in private high schools. Most of all, Royall found that too many colleges waited for students to contact them instead of flooding the market with mailings to gin up interest.
The campus brochure, of course, existed long before Bill Royall signed up Hampton-Sydney as his first college customer. What Royall perfected was making the colorful college “viewbook,” as it’s known, as commonplace in the mailboxes of American teenage homes as an L.L.Bean catalog—and then ensuring the colleges he represented were on the top of the pile. Whether you call it junk mail, spam, or propaganda, generations of high school students and their parents have been inundated with images of perfectly manicured campuses and poetic promises of supportive professors because Royall and those who followed his lead persuaded impressionable seventeen-year-olds that a college actually wanted them.
But what the schools really desired were students to apply in order to boost application numbers and make the colleges look popular to other teenagers, alumni, and the rankings. Sure, some applicants would get accepted, but the more who applied and the fewer who got in, the better for the school’s reputation.
If you’re a high school student or a parent of one, don’t be easily enamored or swayed by all the mail colleges send to your home or your email box. As you’ll come to see, while there is a science to why you’re getting so much, some of the mail is purely random. What colleges are really doing with that mail is filling the top of their “recruitment funnel,” hoping that further down the pipeline they’ll receive enough applications to send enough admits to get enough Yeses from seniors to fill their dorm beds and classroom seats.
For you, the would-be applicant, the first brochure or email message you get is only the beginning of how a college’s agenda ultimately drives the admissions process.
College admissions is a big business. Colleges and universities
spend an estimated $10 billion annually on recruiting students—mostly with old-fashioned direct mail and email, using tactics not much different than those of credit card companies and clothing retailers. Yet at its core, college admissions remains defined by rituals developed in the middle of the last century for a far smaller undergraduate population and for students who tended to stay closer to home than their modern counterparts. If you’re a parent and marvel at how different your kid’s college search is from your own, consider that it’s based on a system designed primarily for their grandparents’ generation.
In the years around World War II, students typically applied to one school, and most colleges admitted anyone who graduated from high school. Colleges we refer to today as elite depended heavily on feeder high schools, usually boarding schools, where officials understood the academic standards and knew the student body. Until the 1950s, colleges didn’t have an admissions office to speak of. There were no admissions deans. No viewbooks the size of catalogs mailed unsolicited to would-be students. No official campus tours. Instead an
administrator split his time between admissions and academic duties with the help of a clerical worker.
By the 1960s, the modern admissions infrastructure started to take shape, the result of more high school students knocking on the doors of colleges. The number of undergraduates more than doubled in the decade baby boomers arrived on campuses, to 8 million by 1969. In response, states expanded public campuses, turning former “normal schools” and “teachers’ colleges” into regional universities and building new college campuses to accommodate the growth. The University of California alone opened three new campuses in the 1960s.
With increased choices for students, public and private colleges began competing for them, shifting the admissions conversation from recruitment
. In 1959, the College Board published for the first time what had been previously a closely guarded secret: how many applications a school received and how many students it accepted. The term “selectivity” entered the lexicon of college admissions. “Once admissions statistics became public,” Elizabeth Duffy and Idana Goldberg wrote in Crafting a Class
, a history of college admissions, “they came to signify a college’s quality.”
As high school students learned about acceptance rates, they began applying to multiple schools to play it safe. Such shopping worried admissions officers. They were concerned about the “growing hysteria over getting into college,” as the director of admissions at
Ohio’s Hiram College put it in 1961—a laughable statement today since even the most elite colleges then weren’t as selective as they are now. But the truth is that colleges were concerned with their own sanity rather than that of the applicants. Multiple applications prompted unease within admissions offices, which until then had never developed models to predict which applicants would enroll because usually everyone accepted came.
But even as admissions officers complained about the rising application volume, they stoked the fire to keep fueling the numbers. They did so by going on more high school visits to woo counselors who they worried would start discouraging students from applying to colleges with declining acceptance rates.
Even so, one tactic remained largely unused by colleges until the 1970s: direct marketing.
To admissions officers, unsolicited mail and even advertising were dirty words, corporate approaches used to lure customers. Colleges were even reluctant to use the term “recruiting,” since that indicated they might be desperate for students. They preferred to call it “school visiting” instead. In general, colleges tended to wait for students to come to them.
When Jack Maguire started as Boston College’s admissions dean in the fall of 1971, he sat with his secretary to watch what she did when a prospective student called requesting information about the school. “She took out an eight-and-a-half-by-eleven envelope, dictated the name and address on it from the phone, stuffed the envelope and put it in the out-basket,” he recalled. “I said, ‘Wait a minute, aren’t you going to keep a record of that name?’ and she said, ‘No, if they’re interested, they’ll apply and then we’ll have a record.’?”
That same year, the College Board offered a new service to campuses that would, over the subsequent decades, revolutionize how millions of high schoolers searched for colleges. It was called the Student Search Service, and it sold the names and addresses of test takers—in other words, prospective students—to admissions offices.
The service got off to a slow start. Colleges didn’t think they needed to market to students. But as the 1980s began, attitudes shifted. “Ten years ago schools that were actively marketing were seen as hucksters,” Lee Stetson, the dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania told the New York Times
in 1984. “Now everyone has to do it.”
The last wave of the baby boom generation was leaving higher education. Demographics are destiny for colleges, and analysts projected that the number of U.S. students graduating from high school would shrink for much of the next decade and beyond. Schools needed to fill the classrooms and dorms they had built for the baby boomers, and marketing consultants such as Bill Royall were ready to help them do it.
When Bill Royall got to work at Hampden-Sydney College, he took a page from the playbook he was already using to raise money for politicians and nonprofits.
The first approach he suggested was to add a P.S. to the letter to prospective students. Hampden-Sydney’s admissions director resisted the idea, worried it would look as if he hadn’t thought through what he’d written. Royall finally persuaded him to try it out with an A/B test. The P.S. letter performed better; more students who received that letter ended up applying.
Other new ideas followed, each one validated with a randomized experiment. One-page letters instead of two. Sending to juniors in high school as well as seniors. Window envelopes to speed up the mailing process so envelopes didn’t have to be matched with letters. An “offer” of free admissions tips if students returned the reply card.
“Everyone was resistant to the offer,” Royall told me. “It sounded cheesy, they said. It wouldn’t generate good inquiries from students. We told them more inquiries could get them better inquiries.”
Later, Royall convinced his clients to allow teenagers to mail those cards to a centralized facility run by his company to speed up the process even further and to better track responses. This was after Royall discovered some colleges stored inquiries from high school sophomores in a closet for up to a year before entering them in their databases because they couldn’t keep up with the responses. Most colleges were accustomed to using small consulting firms headed by former academics to run their marketing campaigns, and some colleges even mailed their own materials. Speed often wasn’t a priority until Royall came along.
Royall was first intrigued by direct marketing as an advertising tactic when he was a college student in the late 1960s and volunteered for statewide political campaigns in Virginia. By 1976, he was running the statewide election effort for President Gerald Ford in Virginia, the only southern state Ford won. The following year Royall helped elect the state’s new Republican governor by pioneering a segmentation analysis that sent materials to voters based on the issues that most appealed to them. Such data-driven segmentation was beginning to permeate every facet of marketing consumer products. By the end of the 1970s, Royall left the governor’s office, where he was working as a senior aide, to head up a direct mail company in Richmond.
By July 1992, Royall had about a half dozen higher education customers. Politics was still his passion, however. On July 16, 1992, he sat in a hotel suite in New York City, watching Bill Clinton on television accept the Democratic nomination for president. On a table in front of Royall was a letter he’d written hours earlier with excerpts from the speech that the Arkansas governor had signed. The following morning, that letter with a New York City return address was mailed to millions of Clinton supporters around the country. It would become one of the most successful political fundraising appeals of its time.
If he had wanted, Royall could have cornered the political fund-raising market. But in the early 1990s, colleges were facing even deeper enrollment troubles than during the previous decade, the result of a decline in American births in the 1970s. Schools needed outside help to run their admissions marketing operations, and increasingly they were turning to consultants. In 1995, Royall decided the future of his business wasn’t in politics, but higher education.
If you’re a high school student deluged with mail from colleges on a daily basis, it’s because the College Board has your name. Most people know the College Board as the owner of the SAT. Founded in 1900, the organization counts some six thousand colleges, high schools, and nonprofit groups among its members. While legally a nonprofit, it often feels and acts like a giant corporation. It collected one billion
dollars in revenue in 2017, according to its federal tax forms, mostly in fees for the SAT and AP tests.
The idea of selling the names and addresses of test takers started with a noble intent—to increase access to college by putting information in the hands of students who historically didn’t go. But as campuses competed aggressively for new undergraduates in the 1980s, peddling names turned into a moneymaker. By then, the College Board was
selling 30 million names a year, at 14 cents a name and grossing $4 million.
In the 1990s, marketing consultants urged colleges to cast wider nets to find would-be applicants, upping the number of names purchased yet again. Then in the last decade, as email marketing and year-round outreach was introduced earlier in students’ high school careers, the College Board expanded further, selling names as many times as it could. “There might be 100 of us all paying for the same name,” said
Michael Sexton, the former dean of admissions at Oregon’s Lewis & Clark College.
In 2006, the College Board sold
60 million names. By 2010, 80 million names were licensed, even though only 5.2 million students took the SAT and PSAT that year. Exactly how much name-selling has grown since is unclear. The College Board refuses to disclose how many names it now sells through “search,” as the practice is commonly called in the world of admissions.
Here’s what the College Board would
tell me: search is bigger than ever. It sells names to nearly 2,000 colleges and scholarship organizations, up from 1,600 a decade ago. A student’s name is sold, on average, 18 times over her high school career, and some names have been purchased more than 70 times—all at a cost now of 45 cents a name, each time it’s requested among those test takers who opt in (students have the choice to participate). While the College Board was the first to sell names, they are far from the only one doing so these days. One survey of admissions officers found that they
buy prospects from over a dozen sources, although the lists from the College Board remain the most popular, with the PSAT typically supplying freshman, sophomore, and junior names, and the SAT senior names.
In the pre-Internet days, the College Board released names twice a year; now it offers new names fifteen times during the year, turning the pursuit of students into a year-round effort. Years ago, the fall of junior year was early enough for most colleges to start their outreach. But for competitive reasons, schools now want to scope out students even sooner. As a result, schools have stepped up recruitment of high school sophomores. Today, 9 out of every 10 colleges
purchase names of sophomores.
When colleges buy names, they can filter the purchase by a variety of factors. An admissions office, for example, might order the names of men with PSAT test scores above 1200 who live in Pennsylvania and want to major in the humanities. This again is where a college’s agenda—and not the talent or accomplishments of students—drives the search buy. A college isn’t looking to send mail only to straight-A students who scored a 1500 or higher on the SAT. Campuses have certain needs—more men, more minority students, more English majors, more students from five states away—priorities they attempt to fulfill by buying names fitting those criteria. The information used to compile the search order is gleaned from questionnaires students complete when they register for a test.
The search business has allowed the College Board to add millions to its bottom line each year without doing much more than pressing a button to send names to colleges and their marketing consultants. While the College Board governs the use of the names under licensing agreements with colleges, the group hasn’t curtailed the endless stream of marketing to students—marketing that ultimately whips teenagers into a frenzy every year and warps the eventual value of the college search.
In the late 1990s, Royall & Company had plenty of competitors. Twice a year, all the firms would all ramp up staff and wait for FedEx boxes to arrive from the College Board with nine-inch reel tapes embedded with names of test takers.
For Bill Royall, even FedEx wasn’t fast enough anymore.
One summer afternoon in 1997, he sent a twin-engine Beechcraft Baron to New Jersey to intercept the tape delivery from a FedEx processing center near Newark airport. What was in those boxes was gold for the colleges that were Royall’s clients. Every minute mattered. The sooner he pulled those tapes out of the boxes and got those personalized letters in the mail the sooner those students would know that these colleges wanted them to apply.
In New Jersey, two men—one the Beechcraft’s pilot and the other a Royall executive—loaded 150 boxes into the back of their aircraft, the seats removed to make enough room. As the sun set, the prop-plane was cleared for takeoff on its return to Richmond. When it landed, Bill Royall met the aircraft and its precious cargo on the tarmac. The men transferred the boxes into a waiting truck and the group sped off on the thirty-minute drive to Royall’s headquarters.
Despite the late hour, the office was full. Workers opened each box revealing the stacks of tapes, each with a slice of student names purchased by a specific client. There were female students with an interest in engineering and SAT scores above 1500 designated for MIT. Seniors from New York City, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Boston marked for Washington University in St. Louis. Yale wanted teenagers keen on the humanities, the University of Miami family incomes above $100,000 and GPAs above a 3.5.
Royall employees confirmed the names on each of the tapes and repacked them for a short trip to a mail-processing firm in nearby Lynchburg. There, workers fed the reels into a machine that spit out letters addressed to each of the students by their first name. The letters included other personal details—their intended major, interests in school—and the all-important tear-off reply card. If students returned the card, they would get some sort of gift, usually a list of admissions tips (10 Questions Other Admissions Deans Hope You Don’t Ask
A few weeks later, Bill Royall’s phone started to ring steadily with calls from clients, letting him know his strategy had succeeded—mountains of reply cards were arriving on their campuses every day. For several years, admissions consultants like Royall had pressed colleges to get mail out to prospective students ever faster. In an increasingly competitive market for students, speed was obviously more critical than ever before. From now on, Royall told his team, he wanted his schools to be first in the mailboxes of students—before they had a chance to fall in love with another college.
Line up students in a high school who performed similarly on the PSAT or SAT and ask about the letters, postcards, or emails they’ve received from colleges and you’ll immediately see how arbitrary the search business is. For one, colleges can’t buy a list of names sorted by high school. The College Board has never permitted that—it didn’t want colleges to essentially replicate in their search what they were already doing with visits to feeder high schools.
If who gets mail and who doesn’t seems so random it’s because it often is. A typical college’s search request usually exceeds how much it can afford to buy. An admissions office might want all the students in Colorado who scored better than a 1300 on the SAT—a request that might generate 12,000 names when the school can afford only 5,000 of them. As a result, the college receives an arbitrary selection of 5,000 names fitting its criteria. This haphazard process for fulfilling orders is why two high school students living in the same town, attending the same high school with similar interests, grades, and test scores might receive mail from different colleges. So while this marketing feels personal to many students who have little experience being sold to, it’s often no more personal than the Internet ads that chase us around the web trying to sell shoes.
No matter the medium, however, teenagers ignore the vast majority of marketing from colleges:
only 11 percent elicits some sort of response (that’s considered good by comparison to direct mail for consumer products where the response rate is even lower). The consensus among the high school students and parents I met while researching this book is that colleges send way too much mail—and most of it ends up in the recycling bin or ignored in email boxes.
So why send so much?
Schools flood the market with mail for many different reasons. They want to make themselves look more selective to the outside world. They’re uncertain about who is actually going to apply, so perhaps they want you to get a brochure but their interest has declined by the time your application is reviewed. What’s more, selective colleges are always looking for that needle in a haystack—the talented student from a middle-of-nowhere high school that they hope will be among a stack of search names they buy. Most of all, colleges want students able to pay, so schools tend to overbuy names of test takers from wealthy zip codes.
Among top schools, the mind-set is the same as it was fifty years ago when B. Alden Thresher, the former director of admissions at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, wrote in a seminal book about admissions that selective colleges “want the best and only the best, we are never satisfied.” Although a random piece of mail from a faraway college is highly unlikely to make the sale, admissions officers keep trying anyway.
One mother texted me a picture of three milk crates of unopened mail she collected over the course of her daughter’s junior and senior years. Another joked she planned to wallpaper her son’s room with the discarded mail when he left for college. A Reddit user tallied 2,374 marketing emails he received from more than 100 colleges—an average of 19 unsolicited
emails from each school. Louisiana State University alone sent him 102 messages.
While occasionally a letter, a brochure, the offer of college swag, or just something different might grab the attention of a teenager—Harvey Mudd in a recent year sent a deck of cards for a scavenger hunt—the mail students told me they most often opened was from schools already on their radar.
Nevertheless, it seems everyone can recall receiving that
surprise letter or email from an Ivy League school or another name-brand college, even when their stats were below freshman averages for the campus. “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?”
The name-buying and resulting direct mail are both a cause and symptom of our national obsession with selective schools. Sure, selectivity was a measure of a college’s brand well before the College Board ever sold a test taker’s name, but the ease and frequency of direct mail changed the dynamics of student recruitment. It allowed colleges in every corner of the country to flood the mailboxes of high school students nationwide, enticing them with pretty pictures to new locales. Suddenly, a high school student in Massachusetts could know about a college in Minnesota or imagine herself walking across a campus in California.
The result was an uptick in applications to colleges, everywhere.
Back in 1975, 60 percent of students applied to just one or two colleges. That was the norm. Now those students are in a distinct minority—only 18 percent do that. When I applied to college in the early 1990s, fewer than 1 in 10 students applied to at least seven colleges. Now that number, thanks to marketing and the growth of the Common Application, has exploded: some 1 in 3 students apply to seven or more places. That shift—the marketing behind it, the nationalization that drove it, the uncertainty it’s created for institutions, and the anxiety it’s fostered for students—is now at the core of what we mean when we talk about college admissions.
When Grace started her college search, she had one wish: a campus on the East Coast, a world away from her tight-knit Chinese American community in San Francisco where she’d grown up. Unlike some of her friends with older siblings who provided a head start on the college search, Grace was the oldest of three. She didn’t have the experience of tagging along as a middle schooler on campus tours. Nor was she given a dog-eared Fiske Guide to Colleges
from an older brother. Her mom, a schoolteacher, had randomly applied to the University of California and ended up at the Davis campus, seventy miles northeast of San Francisco; her dad, who works for the city, didn’t graduate from college.
Grace was unsure of the effort it would take to find the right “fit.” What was a reasonable number of schools to have on her list? Should she visit campuses before she applied? How long would it take to write her essays? Although the start of senior year was still nine months away, she was already making commitments that would add to the strain of application season: taking four Advanced Placement classes, running cross-country, leading the environmental club, and volunteering at her church.
In December of her junior year, as Grace was preparing to take the SAT for the first time, her fall PSAT results arrived. She scored a 1340 out of 1520, a little more than a 100-point gain from the time she took the test a year earlier. A few days later, she met with her school counselor to talk for the first time about the college search and how to get started. “I want to go to a top school,” Grace announced after telling her counselor she also wanted something on the East Coast.
The counselor asked what schools she was interested in, but beyond the brand-name places everyone knew about—Harvard, Yale, and Princeton—Grace struggled to name any. This was how many junior-year meetings started at this high school, or any high school for that matter, where nearly every graduate goes to college. For these students it seemed there were only twenty colleges in the entire country even though most of them were out of reach for them academically. The counselor pressed Grace on why a “top” school was so important. “I want to be around smart, driven people,” she told her.
Grace was already getting letters and email from colleges, the result of her sophomore PSAT scores. They were mostly from schools she had never heard of. She ignored the emails and opened the letters and brochures “to read what they had to say because they took the time, effort, and money to send something,” she told me with a smile. Still, unless she recognized a college’s name, she didn’t research it further. “I know that shows my bias toward a brand, even if the school looked good to me in the brochure,” she said later.
With a round, open face set off by straight, jet-black hair, an enormous smile, and animated eyes, Grace displays an unshowy self-confidence. But when her counselor asked how much a college’s price was a consideration in her search, she hesitated. Grace had broached the subject of paying for college a few times with her mom and dad, but only in the vague terms that parents use to talk about a subject they’re uncomfortable discussing. She knew her parents had been putting away money in a 529 college savings plan, but she had no idea how much was there.
Unlike when we buy a house or a car and check out the price tag first, cost doesn’t initially factor into a student’s decision about where to apply. Research has shown that
parents focus on selectivity and reputation more than cost when discussing colleges with their kids. Parents usually avoid the money conversation as long as they can because they don’t want to deny their child the chance at a dream school. For Grace, the prices of different colleges seemed like abstractions. That’s the case with most teenagers when it comes to college. After all, most haven’t bought anything pricier than clothes, a pair of sunglasses, or maybe a video game console in their lives.
After a few more minutes, Grace’s counselor recommended she check out the College Board’s BigFuture website before they met again. That night in the bedroom of her home in San Francisco’s Sunset District, Grace opened her laptop’s web browser and signed on to the interactive college-planning tool. You have 3,825 college options. Choose a category on the left to find the right ones for you.
The message on the opening screen was meant to pry open the minds of teenagers as they developed their college lists; instead it just induced anxiety in Grace. “There’s just so many colleges to look at,” she said later. “It’s such a crazy, randomish process.” Marketing consultants like Bill Royall were supposed to help students sift through those colleges, but all they did was add to the noise.
For high school students, the college search is likely the first time in their lives they are confronted with so many choices and swamped with so much information as they try to make a momentous decision. It’s a classic case of what psychologists and economists refer to as choice overload and information overload. An abundance of college options paralyzes teenagers or makes them doubt their subsequent decisions compared to those who had fewer options. Comparing colleges requires students to digest hundreds of data points. As a result, they tend to retreat to what is familiar or simple. They glance at the rankings, follow their friends’ lead, or look for the nicest dorms or the universities that dominate the March Madness basketball tournament.
Savvy applicants typically approach the college search by breaking it down into smaller, manageable parts. First, they figure out what they’re looking for in a college—a particular major, research opportunities, location, size—before they ever even start a list of schools. Using those attributes as filters in online search tools, they begin to build their list. Then, they slowly pare down the list over many months by comparing colleges two or three at a time.
As Grace perused BigFuture and clicked on filters randomly for the next hour, her eyes were drawn to the college logos that appeared. She scrolled down the computer screen to see names she recognized. Amherst was first, then a few others she couldn’t recall, then Dartmouth. “I was like, I heard of that one,” she told me. She added Dartmouth to her list along with a few other names that were familiar: Harvard, Yale, Tufts, Wellesley, and Wesleyan.
Every few weeks, she’d visit her counselor or stop by the school’s college center, where a few years earlier the parents’ association donated money to help hire a full-time counselor. “I kept asking them what they thought of the schools that I had on my list, how many I should have,” she said. Their rule of thumb was similar to what I heard from many school counselors, that is, put together a list of ten to twelve schools overall, with three to four colleges in each of three categories: likely
schools, where she’s above the school’s ranges for GPA and test scores; target
schools, where she’s solidly in the middle; and reach
schools, which would be a stretch for her. Remember, many students start their college search in the fall with aspirational dreams that end in the spring with a cold reality: you might only get into your “likely schools,” so be sure they’re colleges you’d want to attend and not just placeholders on a list.
After Grace narrowed her possibilities to a dozen, she drew up a chart, with rows for cost, size, and average SAT scores. There was Yale and Columbia, Brown and Barnard, Skidmore. Just one college, Pomona, was on the West Coast. By the time I met Grace early in her senior year, the list had evolved, but her search was still largely driven by brand-name schools on the East Coast. Grace was wise to start her search in the middle of her junior year because it was her family’s first time through the process. However, rather than use that extra time to start with a list wide open with possible schools then tailor it later on, she limited her choices right from the beginning. Her initial list, for instance, didn’t have any University of California campuses on it, or any public college options at all. For Grace, UC campuses were too big and too close to home.
In those first months of her search, one factor Grace failed to fully consider was exactly how she would pay for college. I found in my interviews that many middle-income—and especially upper-middle-income and even wealthy families—rarely discuss finances early on. They either believe they can cover tuition from their income or from savings or, more likely, they think they’ll secure a merit scholarship in the form of a tuition discount from some college. After all, they hear at parties about family friends whose children received such scholarships, and the media remind them constantly that no one really pays full price for college anymore. The problem for students like Grace who consider only very selective colleges is that financial aid there is usually based on family need, not merit. When looking at top schools, Grace never took into consideration whether her parents’ earnings put her above the cutoff for need-based aid.
By comparison, one of Grace’s friends had winnowed out costly colleges on the front end, using the net-price calculators colleges are required to display on their websites. If her projected financial aid package was inadequate, she took the school off her list. Grace had looked at the calculators, too, but because she used estimates based on her limited knowledge of her family’s finances, the dollar amounts never fully sunk in.
“I still don’t think I have a grasp of what $40,000 of debt really is,” she said later. She believed what the college experts often said was true, that with aid, the cost of a private degree might not be more than going to a public university. “If people would have told me that for sure I wouldn’t have gotten any aid, I wouldn’t have been optimistic,” she said later. “It would have been good to know that reality.”
Grace ignored her counselors’ suggestions in those early months to add some less selective colleges that probably would offer merit aid for high-achieving students like her no matter her family’s income. As spring break approached and she was making plans to visit colleges, Grace reluctantly added a few campuses of the University of California to her list, at the insistence of her mother. But in Grace’s mind, she was still going to school three thousand miles away.
I first met Grace in the college center at her high school. Draped along one wall were college pennants and a map with pushpins showing where last year’s senior class ended up. A quick look at the map showed that Grace’s determination to leave is pretty common: in their cross-country recruitment rush, admissions officers most often strike gold in California.
The number of students crossing borders to go to college has more than doubled in seven states since 2008. No one had a higher number of students leave their home state than California (the other six were Arizona, Georgia, Mississippi, Nevada, North Carolina, and Texas). In admissions circles, California students are known not only to leave the state, but also to travel long distances.
Fifteen percent of California students travel more than 500 miles for college; the national median is just over 100 miles. No wonder so many colleges send full-time recruiters to the Golden State. The Regional Admissions Counselors of California, which represents recruiters for out-of-state colleges, now has more than 130 members, double what it had in 2008.
Just as all politics is local, so too was higher education throughout much of its history. Few high school graduates went to college. Among those who did, their choices were usually limited to a small set of local institutions they knew of through their network of friends, parents, and teachers.
Over the last half century, the admissions market began to shift. The concept of distance changed in the minds of college-going students and their parents. In the past three decades, in particular, places that once felt far away now feel as if they are one town over, thanks to the Internet, the ease of interstate travel, and the proliferation of discount airlines. High-achieving students—rather than settling for their local institution—started to jump into applicant pools at schools with national brands. This phenomenon was described by Stanford University economist Caroline Hoxby in a 2009 paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research. She described it as
a “re-sorting” of students, where their choices were driven less by distance and “far more by a college’s resources and student body.”
The re-sorting accelerated in the 1980s when a handful of colleges with well-timed marketing campaigns repositioned their campuses from regional and even local brands into national names. Duke University, the University of Pennsylvania, and Rice University all saw their rankings go up as they expanded the geographic breadth of their incoming classes. Several urban universities, including New York University, Boston University, and the University of Southern California, also transformed themselves from locally focused commuter schools to international brands. This re-sorting is largely why today’s admissions process seems so intensely competitive and anxiety-ridden to parents who went to college in the 1980s. It’s not that there are so many more top-notch students applying to college; it’s that the top ones from Los Angeles and Chicago and Atlanta and Buffalo are now all applying to the same selective schools. And they’re applying to way more of them.
There’s no denying that the competition for a seat at a specific
college is much tougher for today’s students than it was for their parents. But it’s not true that getting into any selective college is actually that much harder. Even top colleges accept higher numbers of students than they need because they know only between a third and a half of those accepted will say yes to their offer.
Of course, the marketing is designed to make students focus on a “dream” school and a “perfect fit.” It’s not about the similarities that colleges have—it’s about the purported uniqueness of each. No one sends high school juniors a glossy brochure explaining that the top liberal arts colleges are pretty similar. Or a viewbook about engineering co-op programs that says here are a couple of good options for you. Who can blame students for focusing instead on individual brands? Remember that’s what colleges are selling.
A national study of where students send their SAT scores found that
students’ choices cluster around type of college (public or private) and brand. The peer effects present in high schools amplify this trend and often push students farther from home. Once a few graduates from a high school go far away to college, students in subsequent classes follow, and with each graduating class the numbers leaving home grow until the concept of going away becomes the norm.
College-planning tools like Naviance reinforce these peer effects and help explain why so many students mistakenly think only a few dozen colleges are right for them. Naviance is an online service used in about 40 percent of U.S. high schools, giving it an outsized role in the college admissions process. Its most popular feature is the scattergram, where students can judge their chances of gaining acceptance to specific colleges through a graph of anonymous applicants with similar grades and test scores who previously applied from the same high school. A college is displayed only if the high school had at least five students—and in some cases, ten—apply there the previous year. Each applicant’s decision (accepted, denied, or waitlisted) is illustrated with a unique color and symbol.
How much those scattergrams influence a student’s college list is something Christine Mulhern, a doctoral candidate at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, wanted to know. In 2019, she published a study that examined the college choices of students using Naviance in a school district with 4,000 graduates annually. On average, Mulhern wrote, students could access scattergrams for 47 different colleges and universities. She found that students were 20 percent more likely to apply to those colleges than schools without scattergrams. “Students prefer to apply to colleges at which they have some information about their admissibility,” she wrote, “and where they are likely to be admitted.”
Let’s pause for a moment to explain what I mean throughout the book by a “selective” college. It mostly describes a set of around two hundred colleges and universities based on categories chosen by Barron’s, which you can find in a popular annual guide called Profiles of American Colleges
. It separates schools into selectivity categories from “very competitive plus” to “most competitive.” In general, the two hundred “selective” schools accept fewer than half of the students who apply.
Over the last fifty years, half of American colleges and universities have become less selective
in their admissions decisions, Stanford’s Caroline Hoxby found, as the best prospective students applied to only the same small group of elite schools, ignoring hundreds of lesser-known schools. That’s why the
most selective institutions—representing only 20 percent of American colleges—account for about one-third of all
applications submitted now.
The rising selectivity of those few schools grabs headlines every spring when admissions decisions are released, prompting an arms race among admissions offices to talk about just how difficult it was to get in. In 2019, Yale announced it was “impressed with and humbled by” the 2,178 students it accepted from a record high 36,843 applications—a 5.9 percent acceptance rate. Cornell received 49,118 applicants that same year, admitting 10.5 percent of them, “an extraordinarily gifted and accomplished group of students,” according to the university’s vice provost for enrollment.
unending stream of superlatives led New York Times
writer Frank Bruni to quip in a column that Stanford’s acceptance rate had fallen to zero. “With no one admitted,” he wrote, “Stanford is assured that no other school can match its desirability in the near future.”
Joking aside, the plummeting acceptance rates at a small set of elite schools have had serious ripple effects, creating uncertainty in admissions offices further downstream. Whenever schools face volatility in enrollment—caused by demographic shifts or economic downturns—they turn up the spigot of name buys in the hopes of drawing additional applications. That in turn results in students applying to more schools to hedge their bets. As the number of applications skyrockets, colleges struggle to predict yield, the number of accepted students who enroll.
Wherever applications are growing, someone is planting the seeds of that growth. Rising application numbers appeal to alumni, prospective students, high school counselors, even Wall Street investors who buy bonds used to pay for campus buildings. They all see the rising numbers as a signal of popularity and quality in an industry without easy-to-understand metrics.
College admissions has always been a delicate balance between marketing and mission, and the impact of Bill Royall and his counterparts has pushed it further toward the side of commercialization in the last forty years. “Colleges are a business,” Richard Whiteside, the former admissions dean at Tulane, told me before he died in 2019, “and admissions is its chief revenue source.” While many people initially enter the admissions profession to serve the needs of students, they soon find out that selling the college is a necessity in an increasingly competitive industry. Admissions counselors are salespeople pitching a product to students, employed by colleges that need to meet a bottom line.
In 2013, a new generation of students started to arrive on college campuses. Gen Z, those students born in 1995 and beyond, have different expectations for college—most of all they want a job after graduation—and approach the search for the right fit in a very different way than their Millennial predecessors. Studies find that a third of today’s students are “stealth applicants,” meaning they have no contact with a college before applying. Instead of filling out a form at a high school visit, they “like,” they “follow,” or they “subscribe.” Finding them requires a different marketing strategy for colleges once again.
The visitors arrive one after another, nearly every second. The first is Anonymous 5325015 from Toledo, Ohio. Another is Anonymous 9025345 from Sweet Home, Oregon. The third is a hit: David H. from La Porte, Indiana. He’s visiting the freshman tuition web page.
From his office at the University of Toledo, William Pierce is watching these visitors arrive. The senior director of undergraduate admissions is not looking out his window at campus, but at a dashboard on his desktop computer. The feed (think Twitter or Facebook) is constantly scrolling with visitors to the university’s website. They are tracked using their unique IP address.
The day I’m watching, most visitors are anonymous. Pierce digs deeper on one of them, looking at the “engagement summary” that reveals this person—or at least this particular IP address—has visited the university’s website eight times over the last month, looking at thirty-two pages. Each click is a digital breadcrumb that follows the user through the website, compiling every movement as he advances. Every so often, a pop-up appears—a small box in the bottom right-hand corner of the screen or an image that covers most of the page. The goal is to collect some tidbit of information from this user. A name and email address are enough at first. Then perhaps another pop-up at another time will collect information on intended major or year in school. Once Pierce’s system has a name, it’s added to the university’s customer relations management system, or CRM, which Toledo like most colleges uses to track prospective students and to serve them customized information. Sometimes the former anonymous user is already in the CRM system because the university had purchased the name and contact information through search. That’s a precious commodity to people like Pierce because now he can customize what he sends to that prospective student based on his web behavior.
But that’s not the only way Pierce uncovers his web visitors. Remember David H. from Indiana? He was revealed to the University of Toledo a different way. All those emails Toledo sends to would-be students from their name buys contain unique links. When David clicked on one, his data was connected to the back end of Pierce’s system. Now the system could track the movements of students like David through the university’s website and target them with personalized communications based on their interests. David had visited pages for the university’s College of Business and Innovation a dozen times in recent weeks, even though on his SAT questionnaire he indicated he was interested in engineering. So now the university can mail him information about the business school without his ever asking. The university also knows he’s from Indiana, so an announcement for an upcoming admissions information session near his home might pop up next time he visits the website.
Find it creepy? Maybe. But what the University of Toledo and most other schools are doing is no different than the invisible algorithms that Amazon, Zappos, Netflix, or virtually any other online retailer uses to offer you other things you might like based on your past selections. For colleges, this system is a lifeline in a digital age when students ignore traditional marketing from schools and apply to colleges without going to see them or attending a counselor’s visit to a high school.
Toledo’s software is designed by Capture Higher Ed. More than fifty colleges and universities use the Louisville, Kentucky–based company’s system, including the University of Kansas, the University of Tennessee, and Colby College. In a recent year, the company tracked 20 million unique web visitors on its clients’ sites. Most of that traffic is what is called “organic,” meaning it’s prospective students searching colleges’ websites without being contacted by the schools. “Colleges have plenty of interested students, but they often don’t know who they are,” said Thom Golden, Capture’s former vice president for data science. “This tool helps universities uncover those students.” About 7 percent of users go on to complete interest forms that pop up on university websites served by Capture. Of those, 70 percent are organic visitors.
The primary goal of Capture’s software is to turn an anonymous user into a known one, and then a prospective student and eventually an enrolled one. It also allows colleges to offer more one-on-one, personalized engagement with students rather than constantly showering them with general mailings. Today’s students are accustomed to customization and instant communication. “In the past, if a student opened an email but then never inquired again we thought he wasn’t interested,” said Golden, who previously oversaw admissions recruitment at Vanderbilt University. “Now we can see through his website behavior that he actually is interested, it’s just that the university didn’t send him the right information, at the right time.”
In 2014, Bill Royall turned sixty-eight years old. By then, his company’s client list had grown to nearly four hundred schools. That year it collected $105 million in revenue from its admissions business. He was a mainstay at conferences for college enrollment officers—with his shock of white hair, well-tailored suits, round wire-frame glasses, and the company’s signature red ampersand logo pin affixed to his lapel. Twice in the previous six years he had sold the company to private equity firms, remaining on as chairman of the board. Now he was ready for one last hurrah. The admissions marketing business was changing yet again. Just getting students in the door was not good enough for colleges anymore. With demographic shifts on the horizon, colleges also needed help keeping students year to year, getting them to graduation, and maintaining lifelong relationships with their alumni for fund-raising—the “student lifecycle” as it was called.
Other companies were already helping colleges manage these needs. One of them was the Advisory Board Company, which had made billions consulting in the health-care industry. In December 2014, the Advisory Board bought Royall & Company for $850 million. The colossal purchase price sent shock waves through college admissions offices everywhere even though they had helped feed the beast. After all, most college endowments aren’t that large.
When I visited Bill Royall in Richmond, Virginia, we met in a mostly empty, stark-white office he still maintains in his former company’s headquarters. The squat building on the outskirts of Richmond is now home to EAB, which the Advisory Board Company sold in 2017 for $1.55 billion to a private equity firm. The sale included Royall & Company. “It’s the gift that keeps on giving,” Royall joked to me.
He seemed riveted by his own story when he described it to me. I asked him how he felt about the ways the college search had turned into a seemingly never-ending process fueled by millions of pieces of mail and billions of dollars. He had no regrets for his role in creating the admissions monster. “Look, we’ve been able to contribute to access and opportunity and inclusion,” he said. “We know of thousands of kids who go to college every year who wouldn’t because they got recruited through us. When I look back on my legacy, to me that’s the greatest contribution that our company made.”
The business of marketing colleges made Bill Royall a very rich man. As I waited for him and his wife, Pam, whom he met at work, I flipped through a book in the reception area that profiled “the art of Royall & Company.” Sculptures, paintings, and photographs hang everywhere around the three buildings that make up the office complex in Richmond, all collected by the Royalls over the years. In the preface to the book, the company’s art director remarked that our perspective on art “changes as we learn more about its context.” Quoting from John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath
, he wrote “we like what we know.”I
The same could be said for Royall’s approach to selling colleges. He tried to widen the perspective of students, so that they might like more than what they knew.
Above all, Bill Royall made himself wealthy by realizing that all those teenagers (and their parents) were customers. When people told him not to send “window envelopes” because families might think it was a utility bill, he knew they were wrong. Teenagers had never received a bill in their life. They were thrilled to be sold to. For the first time, someone was reaching out directly to them, sending them mail, talking about changing their lives. That type of marketing altered the way parents and their children thought about going to college. For many of them being an American high school student now means swimming in a constant stream of messages about colleges, debating options all over the country, wading through stacks of mail, and getting tracked while you visit college websites. In the end, Royall didn’t just expand the horizons for students, he also expanded our collective anxiety. I
. This quote did not appear in The Grapes of Wrath
. Wallace Stegner might have been the original source for this quote.