Why colleges aggressively recruit applicants just to turn them down

When Tel Kelley began his college search, he knew he wanted to go to a big school with a top-notch sports medicine program and big-time intercollegiate teams.

But as his senior year began at Alamosa High School in Alamosa, Colorado, Kelley started hearing over and over again from about a dozen schools he’d never contacted and in which he had no interest. He estimates that each school sent him two to three emails a week, plus letters and brochures encouraging him to apply.

It’s been “overwhelming,” said the 18-year-old Kelley, an A student who has already been accepted to Oklahoma State and Arizona State universities. Now, as the emails keep pouring in, he said, “I just delete them immediately so I don’t have to deal with it.”

As college-admissions season kicks into high gear, Kelley is a target of a little-known practice among colleges and universities called “recruit to deny,” in which they try to make their admissions process look more selective by boosting their number of applicants — then turning many of them down — through hard-sell marketing techniques.

One major reason for this is that the more selective an institution appears to be, the higher it ends up in the college rankings, said David Hawkins, executive director of education content and policy at the National Association for College Admission Counseling, or NACAC.

“The rankings drive this,” Hawkins said. “But if the rankings went away tomorrow, you would still have college presidents, trustees, alumni, students and all sorts of other stakeholders who care about how selective their college is.”

Even the most elite colleges, including those in the Ivy League, send letters encouraging many students to apply although, high-school counselors say, most of the students’ odds of getting in are infinitesimal.

“I’ve had students come in with those letters,” said Jayne Fonash, guidance director at the Loudoun County, Virginia, Academy of Science, a public high school. “It’s terribly disrespectful for a student with a solid academic record but who still isn’t getting into an Ivy League school to be misled to think that one of those schools is a real possibility. That borders on being dishonest.”

The top schools respond that they are searching for students who bring certain attributes other than high SAT scores or grade-point averages, such as being the first in their families to go to college or excelling at the violin.

Whatever their motivation for spreading a wider net, they’re aided by the fact that doing this has gotten easier. Technological innovations — email being the biggest — let them make contact on a large scale at a low cost.

Most colleges buy thousands of names from vendors such as the College Board, which administers the SATs and collects students’ academic profiles and contact information.

Some use those lists to bombard students with direct mailings and repeated emails touting what they have to offer and, as the semester goes on, reminding them that there is still time to apply. Others send so-called “VIP” or “fast” applications on which much of the information is already filled out. Still others waive the application fee if a student submits his or her paperwork early.

On top of anxiety about the rankings, something else is now driving colleges to turbocharge their marketing: the fact that students today apply to more colleges on average than their peers did in the past, thanks to the Common Application and other advances.

From 1990 to 2012, the percentage of students applying to seven or more colleges increased from 9 to 28 while the percentage applying to three or more rose from 61 to 77, according to data reported by the NACAC.

As a result, from 2002 to 2011, the average yield rate — the percentage of accepted students who wind up enrolling — declined by 11 points.

For many schools, that means having to increase the number of students they accept to produce the same number of freshmen. And some public and private campuses, stretched for revenue because of state budget cuts and higher costs, are trying to raise their enrollments, so they need even more applicants.

“Some [schools] will have to admit five students to get one enrollee,” said Todd Rinehart, associate vice chancellor for enrollment and director of undergraduate admission at the University of Denver.

But, college counselors say, regardless of the reasons, the aggressive recruiting tactics can muddle a process already fraught for students with confusion and uncertainty.

“You are really breaking hearts of kids across the country,” said Katy Murphy, director of college counseling at Bellarmine College Preparatory in San Jose, California.

“I don’t think they do it on purpose, but they don’t realize the personal toll it takes,” Murphy said. “Especially if the kid follows through, applies and doesn’t get in.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

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