Colleges use student lists for recruiting. The filters may be biased.

Right now, high school students are being bombarded with emails and brochures selling the virtues of colleges some have never heard of and universities that others dream of attending.

But the marketing blitz is far from even. Students who live or attend schools in wealthy communities may be receiving one set of materials, while those in low-resource areas may receive another.

That’s a matter of bias, said Ozan Jaquette, an assistant professor of higher education at UCLA. It’s not just that colleges are giving preference to prospective applicants from well-resourced high schools or wealthy areas. The very design of the recruitment tool they use is inequitable, a new study says.

Jaquette and a team of researchers, including Patricia Martin and Crystal Han at UCLA, have produced a series of research papers for the Institute for College Access and Success calling into question a popular entry point for college recruitment: student lists that. help schools connect with college-bound students through email and brochures.

High school students who take the SAT, ACT or Advanced Placement tests can opt in to share their contact information, which the College Board, ACT and other vendors use to curate lists that colleges purchase. The researchers say the products systematically exclude underrepresented groups by focusing on test takers and filtering out students in other ways that can reinforce inequality.

“The use of filters, particularly in combination with one another, really results in racial and socioeconomic inequities in the students that make it onto lists purchased by universities and colleges,” said Karina Salazar, a co-author of the reports and an assistant professor. at the University of Arizona.

ACT did not responded to requests for comment. The College Board, one of the biggest players in the student list market, said higher-education institutions use student lists as one part of their overarching recruitment strategies, and the way each college uses it varies depending on their resources and institutional goals.

Marketing is indeed one part of college admission strategies, but research shows that for marginalized students it can be a critical step in getting them to apply. Black and Hispanic students contacted by colleges through student lists are 46 percent and 65 percent, respectively, more likely to apply to a four-year college than their peers who do not receive information, according to a study commissioned by the College Board.

The coronavirus pandemic upended the admissions process, growing the test-optional movement and college recruiting through virtual engagements. College counselors said students are tuning out the flood of emails and brochures, looking instead to social media and online fairs for information.

Applications surge after big-name colleges halt SAT and ACT testing rules

“These lists are slowly running their course,” said Angel B. Pérez, chief executive of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. “It’s time to think bigger. Let’s not tweak around the edges. Let’s create a new process that works for the kinds of students we’re serving today.”

While colleges are embracing innovative ways to reach prospective enrollees, student lists remain, at least for now, a mainstay of their recruiting and one that deserves further examination, say Jaquette and Salazar.

The researchers analyzed student lists purchased by 14 public universities to recruit undergraduates from 2016 through 2020. They looked at academic, geographic and demographic search filters, examining the characteristics of students whose profiles were purchased based on such factors as race or household income.

The researchers say the “geodemographic” filters offered by the College Board let colleges target students based on the historical college-going behaviors of students from the same high school and the same neighborhood. Because the categories are highly correlated with race and socioeconomics, the filters reify inequality in access to educational opportunities, the researchers say.

The College Board argues that its clients “agree to strict usage policies that stipulate they cannot discriminate against any group of students.” The organization said it “maintains a direct relationship with and oversight of all organizations using College Board-sourced student data to ensure users adhere to these policies.”

As for the underlying data, the College Board said its student search service is available for anyone who opts in through its college-planning website, BigFuture, not just those who take tests. What’s more, students whose information it collects through testing are a large, diverse population, according to the company.

In a statement, the College Board said that “the way each college uses search varies depending on their resources and institutional mission goals. As the researchers point out themselves, many colleges use search specifically to reach underrepresented students and increase equity in educational opportunity.”

Even when colleges use search filters to further equity goals, Salazar argues the filters can undermine the effort. The study, for instance, analyzed student list purchases targeting women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) based on a combination of high AP and SAT scores. Those filters yielded lists that largely consisted of affluent, White and Asian students, and disproportionately excluded students of color attending predominantly non-White high schools, according to the study.

“It seems the search product doesn’t lend itself for colleges to stretch beyond those who would likely be admitted and enrolled,” said Akil Bello, an admissions expert with the nonprofit National Center for Fair and Open Testing. “If I lead with test scores as a parameter of my search, it encourages you to exclude lower test scores, which means excluding low-income and underrepresented groups.”

Universities must meet enrollment targets to keep tuition revenue flowing, and that can compete with priorities to advance equity on campus, said Nikki Chun, vice provost for enrollment management at the University of Hawaii. While schools genuinely want to admit marginalized students, it is difficult to change recruiting practices that are long believed to be successful.

“There are so many priorities to balance,” said Chun, who co-authored a chapter in the upcoming book, “Rethinking College Admissions.” “And the extent to which an institution can really find a replacement that pans out through enrollment, that’s going to be tough.”

Jaquette says creating a free national database of information already collected by high schools, including GPA and courses taken, could be a viable alternative to the paid student lists. It would include more states and a high share of prospective students who could submit more information about their interests for more precise matching.

“The system that would get equality of opportunity for students is a system that would actually benefit the enrollment needs of college universities,” Jaquette said. “Every name is available for free. So you have no more needs for these problematic filters that allow you to this target this or that segment.”

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