For years, colleges have sought out applicants who have high test scores or who can throw a football. But increasingly the targets are far more precise, in part because of technology and in part because recruiters are under the gun to meet enrollment goals.
Now, it’s easier for recruiters to use millions of high school students' personal information to target them for certain traits, including family income or ethnicity, or even to predict which students will apply, enroll and stay in college.
These tactics, which are beginning to resemble the data-driven efforts used by political campaigns, have already prompted internal discussions at the College Board. Advisers to the College Board -- which has data on seven million students it sells to about 1,100 institutions each year – met early this summer and talked about doing more to police how colleges can use the board’s student data, but a committee decided not to change the current policies.
The new tools to micro-target students could help some colleges attract tuition-paying students amid a shrinking pool of high school graduates. A scramble -- first for students to enroll and second for students who don’t need institutional financial aid – has forced college officials to rethink how they fish for students and put more pressure on them to find students of a certain kind.
“Everybody wants to go to the magic island of full-pay students, but it’s rapidly shrinking real estate,” said Bill Berg, an enrollment management consultant at Scannell & Kurz.
Some consulting firms are promising to help colleges try to get paying students, or students who have other means that don’t require colleges to discount their tuition prices. RightStudent gathers and sells data on students to help colleges find specific types of students, including students with families wealthy enough to pay for college and students who can receive outside scholarships for other characteristics, including specific learning disabilities.
“The pickle the state schools are in is they are not getting paid by the state,” said RightStudent vice president Dan Walowski. “They need to find students to offset the balance who can pay.”
RightStudent is a fairly new entrant into the field of enrollment consulting and gets it data from students who submit information to Scholarships.com, its parent company.
The main sources of student names remain the top standardized test makers -- the College Board and ACT – and the National Research Center for College and University Admissions, or NRCCUA, which gathers data on students through surveys they are asked to take in high school.
All three services ask students if they want to “opt in” to share their personal data with colleges, though perhaps few parents and students realize that or are aware of the machinery that kicks into gear after students opt in.
The main three services, for instance, sell millions of student names a year for about 37 cents apiece to colleges and consulting firms hired by the colleges. Colleges and consultants use those names to begin targeting students with a combination of mail and e-mail marketing.
Recruitment advisers offer this advice, which wouldn’t be out of place for salesmen of any other kind: “be persistent .” Admissions officials in a recent survey said, on average, they try to contact each prospective applicant 6.6 times. All told, admissions offices at four-year colleges spend about $2,500 per enrollee on recruitment office and marketing costs, according to Eduventures , a research and consulting firm. That’s a significant chunk of change in trying times.
Now data slicing is beginning to change this process, if only slightly at first.
Don Munce, the president of NRCCUA, said now is a “high-risk time” for enrollment offices, so he is having more conversations with recruiters who don’t want to buy the names of students who will never show up to campus.
“They are making a choice to segment their packages of information to target where they have students,” he said.
Some colleges buy one or two lists of names – the names of all SAT-takers in a state, for instance, or all students with above a B average in a particular area.
But lately the College Board has seen an uptick in the number of lists colleges are buying, an indication colleges may be doing more to target certain demographic groups rather than vast pools. That’s because the fewer lists of names a college buys, the larger but less focused the lists are likely to be; the more lists, the fewer names but more targeted the lists probably are.
The College Board said the number of lists it sells to each institution on average has increased to 18 in 2011 from 14 in 2009, although the board also changed its pricing model, which complicates comparison.
In an effort to help colleges target population segments, NRCCUA, the College Board and ACT all offer some kind of “predictive modeling” services that help colleges buy more focused lists.
The College Board, which recently rolled out a new package  of its recruitment software, also attempts to police how colleges use the data.
It can deny colleges access to its student data if the colleges are abusing the information, though that has only happened a handful of times, said Bettina Donohue, executive director of the College Board’s enrollment programs and services.
For instance, College Board rules prohibit name-buyers from discriminating against students for a host of reasons, including "socioeconomic background." So, searching just for rich kids would be discrimination, Donohue said. But the College Board does sell zip codes, which are a very good proxy for income levels, meaning colleges and their consultants could use the data to sort out rich and low-income kids.
This can be for a good cause: to find low-income students eligible for scholarships. But there have apparently been attempts to police such backdoor ways of segregating students. The College Board's financial aid standards and services advisory committee had a joint meeting with a group of college enrollment professionals this summer. Donohue said the group of professionals was “split” about doing more to police colleges that find ways to target certain types of students, for instance, low-achieving, high-income students. But the advisory committee eventually decided not to step up policing.
“We have a fair amount of checks, but does it catch everyone and everything ? No,” Donohue said. “And does our membership want us to catch everyone and everything? No. I mean, I don’t think they have unanimously said that.”
The College Board has since tried to walk back some of Donohue’s comments and has declined to make other officials or College Board advisers available to talk in more detail about the meeting. A College Board spokeswoman said in a follow-up statement that “the decision was made not to introduce new College Board Search compliance measures because the large majority of members agreed that the existing policies have been very effective at guarding against improper use.
At ACT, its licensing agreement with colleges prohibits certain uses of its data – for instance, colleges are not allowed to call students – but it would allow data sold by its Educational Opportunity Service, or EOS, to be used by colleges to go after wealthy students.
“Pretty much any criteria that is available in the EOS system is pretty fair game; however they want to segregate their data is fine,” said Janie Kesselring, a program director for the service.
ACT collects  and sells access to zip codes and even high school students in various family income groups.
Students may not realize just why they are getting mail about a certain college.
“A lot of this information that is out there, I think a lot of students don’t realize how it will be used,” said Jim Rawlins, the director of admissions at the University of Oregon.
He is particularly concerned about upstart companies rather than established players going too far in an effort to commercialize data.
Students may also not realize they have become pawns in some colleges' ranking games.
Some enrollment officials say abuses that occur in the admissions process are generally tied to practices that would affect an institution’s rankings in the U.S. News & World Report’s closely-watched guidebook.
“There are institutions that will purposefully buy and target and go after students who don’t meet their profile so they can have a lower selectivity ranking,” said Jeff Fuller, the director of student recruitment at the University of Houston. A lower selection rate can boost a college’s ranking.
In other words, students are being approached by colleges that intend to deny them so the institutions can look better on paper.
“I can’t say I’m a big fan of these things where you reach out to a student to get a waived application fee just to boost your numbers then turn around and deny more students,” Rawlins said.
There are, of course, good uses for all of the data.
Rawlins said wanting to know about students is “noble in a certain sense” because colleges can find students who are likely to do well in college.
Michael Hovland, the principal enrollment services consultant at ACT, said targeting can help institutions – he cited Yale University – seek out first generation, high-ability students. Those students are just the sort that may never apply to a single competitive college  even though they might get in, change their lives and help reshape an increasingly unequal society
On Monday, Hovland had just finished an hourlong call with a different sort of college from Yale – a small college, without a track record of attracting students with ACT scores above 28, which loses would-be students to larger institutions. The college wanted to become more competitive.