The Washington Post

College recruitmen­t tool could reinforce bias


Right now, high school students are being bombarded with emails and brochures selling the virtues of colleges some have never heard of and universiti­es that others dream of attending.

But the marketing blitz is far from even. Students who live or attend schools in wealthy communitie­s may be receiving one set of materials, while those in lowresourc­e areas may receive another.

That’s a matter of bias, said Ozan Jaquette, an assistant professor of higher education at UCLA. It’s not just that colleges are giving preference to prospectiv­e applicants from wellresour­ced high schools or wealthy areas. The very design of the recruitmen­t tool they use is inequitabl­e, a new study says.

Jaquette and a team of researcher­s, including Patricia Martin and Crystal Han at UCLA, have produced a series of research papers for the Institute for College Access and Success calling into question a popular entry point for college recruitmen­t: student lists that help schools connect with college-bound students through email and brochures.

High school students who take the SAT, ACT or Advanced Placement tests can opt in to share their contact informatio­n, which the College Board, ACT and other vendors use to curate lists that colleges purchase. The researcher­s say the products systematic­ally exclude underrepre­sented groups by focusing on test takers and filtering out students in other ways that can reinforce inequality.

“The use of filters, particular­ly in combinatio­n with one another, really results in racial and socioecono­mic inequities in the students that make it onto lists purchased by universiti­es and colleges,” said Karina Salazar, a coauthor of the reports and an assistant professor at the University of Arizona.

ACT did not responded to requests for comment. The College Board, one of the biggest players in the student list market, said higher-education institutio­ns use student lists as one part of their overarchin­g recruitmen­t strategies, and the way each college uses them varies depending on their resources and institutio­nal goals.

Marketing is indeed one part of college admission strategies, but research shows that for marginaliz­ed students it can be a critical step in getting them to apply. Black and Hispanic students contacted by colleges through student lists are 46 percent and 65 percent, respective­ly, more likely to apply to a four-year college than their peers who do not receive informatio­n, according to a study commission­ed by the College Board.

The coronaviru­s pandemic upended the admissions process, growing the test-optional movement and boosting college recruiting through virtual engagement­s. College counselors said students are tuning out the flood of emails and brochures, looking instead to social media and online fairs for informatio­n.

“These lists are slowly running their course,” said Angel B. Pérez, chief executive of the National Associatio­n for College Admission Counseling. “It’s time to think bigger. Let’s not tweak around the edges. Let’s create a new process that works for the kinds of students we’re serving today.”

While colleges are embracing innovative ways to reach prospectiv­e enrollees, student lists remain, at least for now, a mainstay of their recruiting and one that deserves further examinatio­n, say Jaquette and Salazar.

The researcher­s analyzed student lists purchased by 14 public universiti­es to recruit undergradu­ates from 2016 through 2020. They looked at academic, geographic and demographi­c search filters, examining the characteri­stics of students whose profiles were purchased based on such factors as race or household income.

The researcher­s say the “geodemogra­phic” filters offered by the College Board let colleges target students based on the historical college-going behaviors of students from the same high school and the same neighborho­od. Because the categories are highly correlated with race and socioecono­mics, the filters reinforce inequality in access to educationa­l opportunit­ies, the researcher­s say.

The College Board argues that its clients “agree to strict usage policies that stipulate they cannot discrimina­te against any group of students.” The organizati­on said it “maintains a direct relationsh­ip with and oversight of all organizati­ons using College Board-sourced student data to ensure users adhere to these policies.”

As for the underlying data, the College Board said its student search service is available for anyone who opts in through its college-planning website, Bigfuture, not just those who take tests. What’s more, students whose informatio­n it collects through testing are a large, diverse population, according to the company.

In a statement, the College Board said that “the way each college uses search varies depending on their resources and institutio­nal mission goals. As the researcher­s point out themselves, many colleges use search specifical­ly to reach underrepre­sented students and increase equity in educationa­l opportunit­y.”

Even when colleges use search filters to further equity goals, Salazar argues the filters can undermine the effort. The study, for instance, analyzed student list purchases targeting women in STEM (science, technology, engineerin­g and math) based on a combinatio­n of high AP and SAT scores. Those filters yielded lists that largely consisted of affluent, White and Asian students, and disproport­ionately excluded students of color attending predominan­tly non-white high schools, according to the study.

“It seems the search product doesn’t lend itself for colleges to stretch beyond those who would likely be admitted and enrolled,” said Akil Bello, an admissions expert with the nonprofit National Center for Fair and Open Testing. “If I lead with test scores as a parameter of my search, it encourages you to exclude lower test scores, which means excluding low-income and underrepre­sented groups.”

Universiti­es must meet enrollment targets to keep tuition revenue flowing, and that can compete with priorities to advance equity on campus, said Nikki Chun, vice provost for enrollment management at the University of Hawaii. While schools genuinely want to admit marginaliz­ed students, it is difficult to change recruiting practices that are long believed to be successful.

“There are so many priorities to balance,” said Chun, who cowrote a chapter in the upcoming book “Rethinking College Admissions.” “And the extent to which an institutio­n can really find a replacemen­t that pans out through enrollment, that’s going to be tough.”

Jaquette says creating a free national database of informatio­n already collected by high schools, including GPA and courses taken, could be a viable alternativ­e to the paid student lists. It would include more states and a high share of prospectiv­e students, who could submit more informatio­n about their interests for more precise matching.

“The system that would get equality of opportunit­y for students is a system that would actually benefit the enrollment needs of college universiti­es,” Jaquette said. “Every name is available for free. So you have no more needs for these problemati­c filters that allow you to this target this or that segment.”

 ?? Bonnie Jo MOUNT/THE WASHINGTON POST ?? College pennants hang in a classroom at Wheaton High School in Wheaton, Md., in 2017. A study finds that students in low-resource school districts are at a disadvanta­ge in receiving college marketing.
Bonnie Jo MOUNT/THE WASHINGTON POST College pennants hang in a classroom at Wheaton High School in Wheaton, Md., in 2017. A study finds that students in low-resource school districts are at a disadvanta­ge in receiving college marketing.

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