When admissions counselors gather, they bemoan the commercialism that encroaches on their field -- and then check out the swag in the exhibit hall. Besides filling up on pens and pads for a year, the counselors also get a look at which businesses are eying the admissions market. At the annual meeting of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, companies helping to design the perfect viewbook are much rarer these days, while companies helping colleges IM with applicants or redesign their Web sites are much more evident.
With Facebook continuing to define the way many students communicate with one another, two companies were visible this year trying to challenge the longstanding patterns of colleges in buying lists of potential students. ACT and the College Board, while best known to students for the exams they offer, have for years been a source of such lists. Along with the National Research Center for College and University Admissions (which uses a survey based approach instead of relying on people who take tests), these entities sell millions of names to colleges every year. A college just orders up the number of names it wants and certain criteria -- California students with grade-point averages over 3.3, Texans with SAT scores over 1100 and an interest in science, etc. The basic model is for colleges to pay per name they buy.
The two new companies attracting buzz this year are both trying to build off the Facebook model, clearly believing that students love nothing more than creating profiles about themselves. But beyond the profile approach, the new companies are offering a much more precise ability to identify students. If the old model allows a college to identify students interested in music, the new approach would let a college buy the names of oboe players. And if a college wanted Asian, bisexual oboe players, a list of names might be possible there, too. More broadly, the traditional model has the student largely on the sidelines after providing information about herself. The new model creates more of a role for students in trying to get in front of certain colleges.
One of the new companies at the NACAC meeting in Austin -- Zinch  -- gave counselors buttons with the company slogan: "I am more than a test score." The buttons were quite popular, and Zinch managed not only to speak to the frustration many counselors have with standardized tests, but to get in a subtle dig at the College Board and ACT at the same time.
Students who create Zinch accounts (at no cost) indeed put in much more than test scores (although they do record them as well, if they want). Students put in as full a profile as they want -- activities, academic interests, demographics and so forth. There is plenty of room for students to put in personal information: relationship status, sexual orientation, answers to prompts such as favorite Web sites, favorite quotes, and "how would I move Mount Fuji." Unlike Facebook profiles, these can't been seen by anyone without authorized access. Students can also do a "shout out" to colleges they want to look at them. Anyone they shout to is notified of the interest.
In less than a year of operations, Zinch has gathered just under 200,000 profiles. Like the college population these days, the database leans female. But the database is much more diverse on race and ethnicity than most colleges' student bodies. Just under half of those in the database are white, and black students make up by far the largest minority group.
The 271 colleges that have signed up for access (and the right to contact students) have thus far not had to pay. But the company plans to start charging $15,000 annual subscriptions to colleges, which then get to do as many searches as they want and to contact students who appeal as potential applicants. Brad Hagen, one of the founders, said that the idea was to change the "culture" in which students communicate with colleges to one that reflects students' individuality. He also said that because students could create the profiles at any time in high school, and update them, the process could encourage them to prepare themselves for college.
Cappex,  also a new company, is offering a variation on the theme. Students fill out profiles, with plenty of detail but a little more standard to those used by others (no sexuality question, for example). Colleges then fill out their criteria. But instead of just turning over the student names, the company will give the student a list of colleges whose criteria have made them a match. The student then decides which colleges to contact. Cappex plugs its approach as one that will appeal to students who hate the idea of their names being sold or losing control of the admissions process.
From a college's perspective, there is another advantage. Cappex does not plan to charge colleges or students, but to support the site through advertising from groups seeking to reach the student population (lenders and the military, for example). Michael Moyer, president of the company, is less forthcoming about client numbers, but said that Cappex would be providing more than 1 million "mutual opt-in leads" this year, which he said are much more valuable than standard leads. He declined to name any colleges using the service, or the number of them, because many "don't want the public to know they are buying names."
A big advantage of the service, Moyer said, was the ability of colleges -- at a time of scrutiny of affirmative action -- to "discreetly reach out" to potential minority applicants. Colleges can specify different minimum GPA's and test scores for different ethnic and racial groups, so they can indicate that they will look at white applicants with a 3.5 GPA and black applicants with a 3.0. "Every college has holes it needs to fill," Moyer said.
The point Moyer boasts about is actually not unique to his service. College officials report that they use the College Board, ACT and other databases in pretty much the same way, but they just don't like to talk about it much.
Hagen of Zinch said that colleges are doing similar searches on his service. "We let colleges do whatever they want," he said. "We are a guest in their space."
Asked if some of the student demographics could be used to discriminate -- say a socially conservative college wanting to avoid recruiting gay students -- Hagen said that the searches were always designed to be "inclusive," not to exclude, and that the sexuality category was popular with "colleges that pride themselves on being gay-friendly."
With both Cappex and Zinch, the information provided by students is not verified. Because the colleges are only buying leads, and a student would eventually have to file a formal application, the idea is that verification should remain a college's responsibility.
So what do the established players in name prospects make of the new arrivals? Larry Erenberger, senior vice president for enrollment consulting at the National Research Center for College and University Admissions, said he didn't want to talk about competition, but he said that the strength of the center's approach was in providing guidance to college on admissions goals and strategy, not just providing names. The center compiles detailed data on student interests and demographics, but does not have standardized test scores. The 1,800 colleges that are clients pay about 30 cents for each name, a rate similar to those charged by others.
Michael Hovland, senior consultant for enrollment management services at ACT, said he wasn't bothered by the new entrants in the field. "What most schools do is experiment," he said, and many colleges buy names from more than one source. ACT's strengths include having verified test scores, a broad pool, and a "squeaky clean reputation" on who can buy the names. Only colleges and scholarship services may do so, not the military or lenders, he said.
Given the size of ACT's student database, he predicted that colleges would continue to value its breadth, even if some of them also use the new services for "niche" groups of students.