The Telemarketing of Higher Ed

When his number landed on a list sold to numerous for-profit colleges, David Farris couldn't stop the phone from ringing.
March 8, 2011

There is a fierce battle for students being waged among for-profit colleges. To experience the frenzy of for-profit recruiting firsthand is enlightening and a little horrifying. I have occasionally provided my contact information to marketing agencies online to solicit professional services, which generated a reasonable amount of follow-up calls. But I have never been inundated by calls at the pace and level of intensity that I received one recent morning from for-profit college admissions officers.

During an especially productive work session, I received a call on my work-issued cell phone at 9:12 from a young man asking to speak with Tiffany. I politely informed the caller that there was no one by that name in my office. I received another call for Tiffany at 9:14. I assumed the caller was an associate of the previous caller and chalked it up to persistence. At 9:15 when I received yet another call for Tiffany, my graduate education kicked in and I began to recognize a pattern. I politely explained that Tiffany was unavailable and asked the caller to explain the purpose of the call. The caller informed me that he was an admissions officer attempting to contact Tiffany on behalf of a well-known for-profit college; he was trying to reach her to follow up on a request for information on undergraduate degree programs, he was sorry to inconvenience me, and he would remove me from the college’s call list.

I had similar conversations with the subsequent 19 admissions officers at 9:19, 9:22, 9:33, 9:41, 9:54, 9:58 ... 12:27, at an average of seven calls per hour. I received a "courtesy call" from a notorious for-profit institution to which I replied, "Oh I know who you are, I heard about you on a documentary about for-profit colleges," to which the caller sheepishly replied "yes."

During the next call, I insisted on speaking with an admissions office supervisor (this call was from a reputable for-profit college) who was able to tell me how her institution had obtained my phone number. My number appeared in an online database that services for-profit colleges by linking prospective students seeking information about educational opportunities to admissions offices. The company that manages the database collects fees on a cost-per-lead basis. Tiffany must have mistakenly entered my phone number into this database. Between the two of us we generated 23 individual invoices in a little over three hours.

It was an interesting experience to be personally hounded by for-profit college admissions officers for the better part of a morning. I didn't ask each caller to identify his or her affiliation, but all of those whom I did query represented for-profit institutions. I received bundles of glossy advertising materials from colleges and universities as a senior in high school, but that experience never felt as aggressive, calculated, and impersonal as the phone calls I received throughout the morning.

As a student of higher education administration I was forced to reconsider my conception of the contemporary model of higher education. I have long argued that innovative business practices are essential to higher education’s survival, necessitated by increasing demand and market differentiation; however, the motives and strategies of some for-profit colleges and universities feel the same as those of our least favorite businesses ... only a lot worse.

Sorry, will you please excuse me? I have to take a call.... "Hello, this is Tiffany."


David Farris is a Ph.D. candidate in the higher education program at George Mason University.


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