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Colleges intensify recruitment through use of "Big Data"

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Over the past several weeks, my cat has been bombarded with emails from colleges anxious for her to complete the Common Application she started some time during the fall. The emails have come from schools currently on her list as well as from those she dropped off the list quite some time ago.

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And they vary in terms of tone and intensity.

The College of William and Mary, for example, took a whimsical approach. An email titled, “Let’s Go Skydiving,” was less of an invitation to strap on a parachute and more of a reminder that applications were due in a matter of days. The cat was only mildly disappointed as airplanes scare her.

The University of Virginia was more instructional and went over the process of submitting an application in some detail, while Johns Hopkins provided informational links to blogs and FAQ’s. Hopkins also used the reminder as an opportunity to suggest that they were willing to accept either the Common Application or the Universal College Application.

Without setting a final due date, the Syracuse email indicated a willingness to accept applications after the posted January 2nd deadline and consider them on a “space-available” basis. NYU, on the other hand, provided a stern reminder and stated, “A receipt for your application fee does not mean you have successfully submitted your Common Application to NYU.” The cat was directed back to check her status with the Common Application.

In their most recent emails, Boston College and Swarthmore announced deadline extensions. Evidently both schools were concerned about how problems with the Common Application and bad weather might affect the cat’s ability to meet published deadlines.

All of these schools knew where and how to reach my cat thanks to the Common Application (CA). When she registered, the cat was clear she was not an applicant but rather an observer of the application process.

But because the cat indicated a willingness to receive inquiries from colleges on her list, a huge number of institutions were alerted to her potential “interest.”

And as part of the marketing service provided at no cost to CA member colleges, certain required and optional personal information such as name, home and mailing address, email address, telephone number, citizenship, date and place of birth, parents’ names and address, and social security number was collected and forwarded to colleges anxious to receive applications from prospective students.

This year, more than ever, colleges have used this information to drum up business. In fact, hardly a day has gone by since beginning the application process that my cat hasn’t received at least one email from a college on her list.

In a “Privacy Policy” quietly revised and posted on the Common Application website just last month, applicants are warned that information is collected and provided not only to colleges on their lists but also to three additional “trustworthy independent web service providers,” including Hobsons, Inc., Amazon Web Services, Inc. and Higher One, Inc. (formerly Sallie Mae).

Under the new policy, the Common App takes no responsibility for the “privacy or information practices of those Colleges and/or Universities that receive the personal information that is collected from [the] site and distributed to them as part of the application admissions process.” And although colleges sign a Participation Agreement, the Common Application takes no responsibility for how any college or university or trustworthy independent web service provider will use, protect or store the information in their possession.

Note that whether you agree to receive information from colleges or not, the Common App reserves the right to install “cookies” on your computer designed to facilitate use of the application software. This is not really optional. In fact, if you choose to reject all cookies, you will most likely be unable to use the Common Application. So every time you access any feature of the Common Application, including the Help Desk, you and your IP address are being tracked.

And about those seemingly innocent emails my cat has been receiving? They provide a wealth of valuable data to colleges and universities.

According to information presented during a workshop targeted to enrollment management specialists at NACAC’s annual conference in Toronto last year, colleges closely track applicant response to their emails. If you don’t open the email and send it directly to trash, they know it. If you follow a link provided within the email, they know it.

And for purposes of determining your level of interest, they may very well include that information in an enrollment management file they are generating, which can be linked to any application you eventually choose to submit.

So what does this all mean? First, applicants should be aware that all contacts with the Common Application as well as member colleges are potentially tracked through software designed for this purpose. This includes simply placing a college name on the Common Application list.

If you “opt-in” to receiving inquiries from colleges through the Common App, you can expect to receive glossy brochures in the mail or emails pleading for your application. And the receipt of these communications has nothing to do with your qualifications and how much colleges may “want” you. It’s strictly a marketing game.

But you can play the game too. As long as you are willing and understand how colleges use the information, you can elect to provide form of “demonstrated interest”—real or not—by including a college on your list. The timing as well as your willingness to follow-up on emails are important and may be figured into an admissions decision.

So even if the University of Virginia tells you that demonstrated interest is of no concern to them, be aware they know a great deal about you including at what point you placed UVa on your Common Application list, how often you opened their emails, and whether you followed any links to their website.

Welcome to the brave new world of “Big Data.”

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