Colleges Buying Test-Taker Names

SAT Test-Takers, ACT Test-Takers, Colleges Buying Names
Elite colleges seek to annually lower their admit rates. Duh.

A common refrain we’ve heard for many years in the world of highly selective college admissions goes like this: “It gets harder and harder each year to get in.” And it’s not like the people who sing this refrain are looney-tunes. They just happen to be incorrect. It does not in fact get harder and harder to get into America’s elite colleges with each successive year — such a a statement only serves to boost anxiety surrounding the admissions process and perpetuate a misconception. While admission rates do tend to drop each year (though this year might prove to be an exception!), declining admit rates do not — in themselves — indicate it’s more difficult to get into an Ivy League or other highly selective institution. Rather, as we have long argued on the pages of our college admissions blog, elite colleges are just getting better and better each year at inspiring unqualified applicants to apply. And the more students who apply — irrespective of their qualifications — invariably the lower the admit rates will fall. But, to go to an extreme to make our point, more C students in an elite college’s applicant pool doesn’t make it more difficult for an A student to earn admission to said college.

Elite Colleges Buy Students’ Names to Market to Them

A November 5, 2019 piece by Douglas Belkin for The Wall Street Journal entitled “For Sale: SAT-Takers’ Names. Colleges Buy Student Data and Boost Exclusivity” shines a bright lantern on how our nation’s colleges will market themselves to America’s high school students, including by buying lists of SAT and ACT test-takers from College Board and ACT, respectively. As Belkin writes, “For 47 cents, the College Board will sell an individual’s information, feeding admissions frenzy.” They sure will. Belkin is spot on and his piece is worthy of a read.

Elite Colleges Often Argue They Only Market to Qualified Applicants

And when admissions officers at our nation’s elite colleges say they don’t market themselves to students who don’t have a shot on God’s green earth of ever earning admission, know that admissions officers — like all human beings — don’t always tell it like it is. In fact, in a piece for The Dartmouth entitled “Admissions director asserts College does not market unfairly,” Lauren Adler writes, “Dartmouth and other elite colleges and universities across the country hope to admit top students. But according to a Nov. 5 Wall Street Journal article, some of these institutions will market themselves to weaker applicants as part of the numbers game of acceptance rates in college admissions.  When asked about this practice, Dartmouth’s director of admissions Paul Sunde said that Dartmouth does not engage in it. He also argued that other schools likely do not engage in it as well.”

But the Truth is Elite Colleges Will Indeed Market to Unqualified Students to Boost Allure

And that, of course, is nonsense — not that Dartmouth is any more guilty of this practice than any other elite university in America (all colleges are businesses!). Indeed each and every highly selective institution in America engages in this practice. Because why? To lower their admit rates. To make their institutions seem even more desirable than they already are. To boost their US News & World Report college ranking. To build that long line outside the coveted nightspot so everyone knows it’s the hottest spot in town. And so, the next time you receive a brochure from an elite institution in your mailbox, don’t get so excited. Keep your expectations in check. It doesn’t mean that school wants necessarily to admit your child. It means that school wants your child to apply.


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  • john chu says:

    While I agree with you that the admissions rate is artificially low, it’s also true that it’s getting harder to get into elite schools. It’s getting harder to get in due to increasing population and international students. If the schools don’t increase their class size, it definitely gets harder every year.

  • John Webster says:

    It is going too far to describe the claim that colleges are getting more selective is “incorrect” because that claim assumes that the pool of QUALIFIED/COMPETITIVE applicants remains EXACTLY THE SAME OR FALLS year over year. This seems ridiculous. Why, as more and more people apply, would at least SOME of them not be in the running for admission? Is the pool of Dartmouth-qualified applicants really so small? And does that pool HAPPEN to be the same that applied 20 or 30 years ago?

    You may be right that the bulk of additional applications are ludicrous moonshots that get tossed right in the reject pile. But if 100 more people apply to, say Dartmouth, this year as compared to last, your claim is true only if EACH AND EVERY ONE who would not have applied but for mailings and promotion is less qualified than all of the applicants in the pool who would have applied anyway. If even so much as one SINGLE applicant who applies because they got a brochure/were exposed to college outreach is more qualified than the least-qualified person who would have applied regardless of promotion, then your claim does not stand.

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