How do ‘student lists’ used for college recruitment shape access?

Student lists, which some U.S. colleges purchase from test providers to recruit students, can limit access to higher education for low-income students, rural students, and students of color when institutions use the information to target certain zip codes, GPAs, and test score ranges, according to a study from The Institute for College Access & Success (TICAS), an education advocacy group. High school students who take the ACT, SAT, and Advanced Placement exams can opt in to have their contact information sold by the test providers to interested colleges. Colleges, in turn, access student lists through multi-tiered subscriptions to recruit prospective students through mail, email, and targeted social media.

In their analysis of student list purchase data from 14 public universities in California, Illinois, Minnesota, and Texas used to recruit undergraduates from 2016 through 2020, researchers at TICAS found that these lists systematically exclude students in two ways. First, universities cannot purchase the contact information of students who are not included in the underlying database of test-takers. Second, search filters that pinpoint students who are the “best-fit” for colleges disproportionately exclude underrepresented students and perpetuate disparities, the researchers found. The practice may explain why one student may hear from multiple colleges, while another, similarly accomplished student may hear from just a few, The Chronicle of Higher Education says.

“The fact that colleges and universities can hone in on prospective students in ways that could worsen racial and economic divides should raise alarms for students and families, as well as policymakers,” says Sameer Gadkaree, TICAS president.

A closer look at outreach, enrollment

“That said, there’s an important paradox here,” the Chronicle writes. The researchers also point out the important role that student lists can play in encouraging underrepresented students to apply to colleges when those institutions do reach out.

Students who opted into having their contact information sold for college recruitment had increased access to higher education. Students who were contacted by schools using the College Board’s Student Search Service were 23% more likely to apply and 22% more likely to enroll in a participating college compared to students with whom they shared similar academic and demographic characteristics who did not receive outreach via Search, College Board research found. Black and Latinx students who receive college recruitment material through student lists are 46% and 66% more likely to apply to a four-year college, respectively, than their peers who do not receive such search-enabled college outreach, according to a recent College Board study, The Washington Post reports.

In response to the TICAS study, the College Board said that institutions that use its student list search agree to not discriminate against any group of students or will have their sharing agreement terminated, Higher Ed Dive reports. The College Board also noted that students who do not take standardized tests can also opt into student lists through BigFuture, the College Board’s college-planning website. “In fact, more than half of students who opted-in this year did so outside of the assessment experience,” the College Board explained. ACT did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

A more equitable approach?

TICAS also notes that the growing number of test-optional admissions policies at colleges, and resulting decline in test-taking, may leave a growing number of students off these recruitment lists.

To create more equitable college recruitment lists, the TICAS study proposes the creation of a “public option,” a national database students would opt into that would provide their names, GPAs, and courses they’ve taken for free rather than through expensive subscriptions.

“There are students who are going to go to college no matter what,” Ozan Jaquette, an assistant professor of higher education at the University of California at Los Angeles and lead researcher of the TICAS student-list project, tells The Chronicle. “For them, the student list might affect which institution they go to. But then there are students on the margin of going to college or not, or going to a two-year college instead of a four-year college. It’s important for colleges to identify and contact those students, to make those students feel wanted.”

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