Colleges: It’s Time to Reconsider Name Buys
By Megan Kauffman on January 26, 2021
This is an abridged version of a recent podcast episode where we sit down with a high school counselor to discuss why colleges should rethink their strategy when it comes to purchasing student names and contact information. Our guest shares insightful information for admissions and enrollment management leaders to consider when deciding on top of funnel strategies and he also covers what students and families should think twice about before providing their contact information to third parties during the college search process.
Megan: Hi everyone! And welcome back to Inside College Admissions. My name is Megan Kauffman and I’m the Senior Product Marketing Manager at Scoir. Today we are joined by Dustin Lynn, Director of College Counseling at Battleground Academy in Franklin, TN. We are going to have a conversation about alternate perspectives on the common college admissions practice of buying student names and contact information. But before we dive in, I’d like to give you some background on Dustin. Dustin started his career as an admissions counselor at Vanderbilt University before transitioning to college counseling at the high school level. Dustin brings over 6 years of experience in helping students in the Southeast find and apply to the right college. Welcome Dustin!
Dustin: Hi Megan. Thanks so much for having me.
Megan: We’re so happy to have you here. Our first question of today: Do you think students understand what they’re signing up for when providing their contact info to CollegeBoard, college fairs, universities, etc?
Dustin: I think that’s a great place to start. The answer is yes and no because I think students enter into any relationship with a college or testing agency with a lot of trust. They know these are well known, established organizations and the information they are receiving is within the context of that relationship. They know they’re educational institutions that are there to help and serve students so I think when a student provides their information, they are looking to get information and they trust what they are getting. When a student signs up, I think it is innocent enough. They know they want to learn more about college, more about academic programs, more about what it’s like to be a student there, what’s financial aid, etc. From that perspective, they absolutely know that they’re entering this communication stream so that they can learn about whatever the college is and the same thing whether they sign up for information from the college itself or they provide their contact information at a college fair or to another entity, I think they understand that on a basic level.
We as professionals however know the marketing and admissions piece that goes behind all of this.
To counter what I just said, I had a student recently say “Hey I didn’t know I was going to get all these emails from colleges by providing my email address on X test” that they recently took. I think they expect some marketing but the influx they receive is kind of overwhelming and they don’t know to what extent colleges will use their contact information regardless of whether they might be perceived by the college as a good fit or not to reach out to them. So I think the basic answer would be yes they enter into it knowing they are going to receive information but I don’t think they know all the ways colleges will use that information from the marketing perspective and what purposes colleges have in buying that information from them in the first place to meet their enrollment goals.
Megan: That makes a lot of sense. On that note, why should colleges reconsider name buys?
Dustin: That’s an even better question. I know we’re going to talk about this in a little while, so I don’t want to condemn colleges and say name buys are this terrible practice, but I think that entirely depends on the philosophy that the institution employs. I know that a lot of institutions have a lot of particular guidelines around their outreach to students through the purchasing of their names and contact information. For instance, most universities are going to have parameters for the types of students whose contact information that they purchase and for whom they will eventually contact. Those parameters can have geographic bounds. They can have selectivity bounds. I think those are the ones that are the most important. For instance, universities will be able to indicate, “We want to purchase the names of students that have a certain testing profile that either ultimately aligns with ours or it doesn’t.” so that they make sure those students can be selective in their application pool.
Along those lines, a lot of colleges and universities use name buys so that they can fulfill their mission of reaching students who might be first generation or from underrepresented backgrounds as well. There’s a lot of good stuff that goes into it. The part they might want to reconsider though is really thinking about the ethos and ethics of that. Just recently I was talking with a colleague and we were discussing where an institution doesn’t really have any search parameters. They will buy student names and they were doing so irrespective of what their testing profile might be. The institution in question is one that everyone listening to this is going to know so it raises the question of what is your purpose for purchasing the name of the student when you know based on your data set and projections that the student will ultimately likely not be admissible or competitive in your pool.
I think that’s what leads to a lot of mistrust from students and families and what I would urge institutions to reconsider in their name buying.
Not to just completely eradicate the practice, but to at least be intentional about the purchasing of names because you’re leading students on at that point. They become an applicant that has value for your institution and gone down the line in terms of your selectivity and other types of things, but I don’t think it’s a good practice to be purchasing names of students who you don’t think are going to be a viable candidate in your pool.
There are definitely pluses and minus to this. Again I wouldn’t be an advocate for eradicating the practice of purchasing names because I think there’s some real good to be done and again students get to receive information from colleges as well that they might not have thought about, but as far as colleges not being judicious about the types of students whose names they’re purchasing and sometimes erratically emailing students because they were able to get their names from another search, that’s what really should be reconsidered.
Megan: To play devil’s advocate here, this is something that has been standard practice for colleges for a long time. Where’s the harm?
Dustin: That’s a great followup question because I think it comes to some of the things we just talked about, so it’s kind of interesting. Students will enter into it knowing their information is being provided for informational purposes, but at the same time, we can all think of times when a student has said, “Oh I’m receiving information from X University!” and they get really pumped about it. We can also probably think of many parents who are having dinner with their friends or talking with people at the parent pickup line “Oh my student is receiving information from this university.”
I think the harm can come from the fact a student can misconstrue what the intent of that communication is.
Instead of being something that is helpful for them and informational, they think it’s an indication of interest in them. I think it comes down to the communication itself.
I’ll give you a really great example of maybe not something that was a name buy, but how some universities use a student’s contact information. I actually went on a tour of a college, again a college we would all recognize, a few years ago. From that visit, they didn’t remove me from their student database and they knew almost nothing about me. They knew my name. They knew my email address. They knew nothing else about me other then this fake student Dustin Lynn, who was just a college counselor visiting the campus even after I told them to remove me from that system. Later on I received an email from the dean of that school that said, “Hey. Based on what we know about you, we want to know more and we think you would be a good candidate for our school.” And they knew nothing about me as a student! I think this comes from the messaging too. I think this has been going on for long enough that the colleges are just on autopilot.
The thing that I think is redeeming about it is the practices I shared earlier, which is why you’re right to play devil’s advocate here. So many colleges genuinely use the service to be able to identify great students who would thrive at the university who have a chance of admission through the applicant pool who may otherwise not be thinking about that college in the first place. That’s the point of student search from the student’s perspective and the college’s perspective. We also just have to accept the fact that colleges have to make their class. They have to make sure they are receiving applications from qualified students. They have to have a certain number of students on their campus. They have to make sure that they are making their numbers because if they don't, they can’t offer all of the wonderful educational opportunities, financial aid, and social support that students expect as well. So I think in that regard, we do need to give universities some leeway, but I do think we need to be critical of how they are using student information, so it is in an authentic and ethical manner.
Megan: That’s a powerful reminder for our college audience to really think about the student and parent perspective. What is their interpretation of the messages they are receiving? What might it mean to them? In your experience working with high school students, what’s the best way to reach and engage with them?
Dustin: I think students are a bit more savvy than we give them credit for. It’s interesting. I’m talking about how they might not know what they are signing up for, but they know when folks are being authentic with them and when it is marketing hoopla, so even in the case of the example I gave where they reached out and said we’re interested in you, students aren’t dumb. They know what you know about them and what you do not when colleges reach out to students. So I think the traditional modes of contact are perfectly fine: email and social media, which is something we’ve used a lot in our college center. Other schools and higher ed institutions are using social media.
It’s about how you reach out to students. Are you being authentic? Are you meeting them where they are? Are you giving them resources and tools and perspectives on your college campus that speak to where they actually are in their development and what they want to know? Or are you more driven to convert them to an applicant?
I think the important thing when reaching out to students is just to be authentic. Understand that they are quirky, fun, dynamic, diverse, young people and speak to those differences and the multiplicity of experiences that they might have in an authentic way. That is where they are instead of just communicating with them from the perspective of “Hey, we want you to apply to our institution because we want your application.”
Megan: I think that authenticity component is so crucial for really engaging and converting students all the way through the admissions process. From a data privacy perspective, what other things should students and their families be mindful of during the college search process?
Dustin: It doesn’t just rest with colleges. There are so many other entities. The first thing that comes to mind is the financial aid process. When students apply to college, many of them will also be seeking need-based and financial-based assistance, as well as merit-based assistance. The FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid, is something that most, if not all, colleges are going to require if you are seeking aid. A lot of folks go to where we all go when we’re looking for information: Google. You might type in FAFSA or you might even be contacted by organizations that offer to fill out the FAFSA for you. I think the big thing is, if you are a student or parent or family member listening, the FAFSA is free. You do not need to pay a fee for it. You don’t have to pay an agency to complete it for you. I think that intersects with the data privacy piece because these folks are already trying to turn a profit on something that’s free for you to do in the first place. I would be cautious about releasing your personal data or financial data to these folks who are filling out something that there are tons of resources for you to be able to do on your own or with the assistance of a counselor if you are in an environment where you have a supportive college counselor or social and emotional counselor at your school who can support you with that. Definitely in the financial aid world, there are a lot of great ways to connect and share your information, even with the university itself. Always reach out to their financial aid office. But if you ever see an email from someone offering to fill out the FAFSA for you for a fee or you see that in your online research, definitely get out of there.
Summer programs are something to consider as well. We talk about colleges reaching out to students. There are a lot of programs that are often defined by what my colleagues would call money grabs, because they can cost upwards of $5,000 to $7,000 to attend a summer program. These programs are purchasing names in the same avenues as the colleges do from testing agencies and those types of places. What happens then is a student will think, “I’m being invited to this really prestigious summer program.” The fact of the matter is you don’t have to pay to go to that program. You can recreate another experience somewhere else.
I think the important thing is to be a consumer regardless of whether it’s a college, a program, or someone from financial aid reaching out to you.
Megan: That’s really insightful information for our families to consider, as well as all you shared today for our college listeners to keep in mind. Well that concludes our conversation with Dustin! Thank you so much for joining us Dustin and we appreciate our listeners as well.
We look forward to chatting again with you soon!