Those College Brochures Mean Nothing

Colleges buy names of students from organizations like The College Board (photo credit: Alfred Hutter).

“My son has been getting brochures from multiple Ivy League schools. They want him!” It’s a sentiment that has been conveyed to us countless times over the years, typically by excited parents who are under the impression that a college wouldn’t send glossy advertising material through the postal service if they weren’t actually interested in admitting the student. And while we hate to burst bubbles, we don’t believe in sugarcoating anything in elite college admissions. We tell it like it is even if it’s not what a parent wants to hear. The truth is that elite colleges send glossy brochures not because they necessarily want to admit a particular student. Rather, they just want that student applying. And why? Because the more students who apply, invariably the lower the admission rate will be and the higher the school will be ranked in US News & World Report. Yes, elite college admissions is a game and if you want to understand what’s driving the game, look no further than the magazine that features the kingpin of the college rankings.

So how did these elite universities get your child’s name? The biggest supplier of names is The College Board, the maker of the SAT and AP exams. The College Board, of course, has some competition in this category — including from ACT — but the maker of the SAT has been selling names for the longest period of time. It’s a big business line of the test-making company. In fact, Jeffrey Selingo shared some numbers about just how many names The College Board peddles each year in his book Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions. As he details, by 2010, “80 million names were licensed, even though only 5.2 million students took the SAT and PSAT that year.” It’s a far cry from back in the 1980s when the test-maker was peddling 30 million names to colleges at 14 cents a name for a total of around $4 million. And just to give you an idea of which colleges are buying names, as Selingo details, 9 out of 10 colleges purchase names of sophomores. There are, of course, over 900 universities in America.

So the next time you pull out a glossy college brochure from your mailbox, don’t get excited. Don’t get upset. Just know that this particular college bought your name and the school wants you to apply. But it doesn’t mean they think you’re a strong candidate. It doesn’t mean they think you’re super smart or talented. All it means is they want you to apply. Quite simply, that’s all there is to it!


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