Selling College to the Kids

Editor’s Note: We are honored to welcome guest columnist Don Harrold from  This article is the second in his three-part series exploring college planning. The first column, published in January, is “Rethinking the College Model.”

The experience of choosing a college is very different when you’ve got a teenager and are looking at it from the other side of the divide.  What’s struck me – like a two-by-four – is the extent to which the kids are marketed by the multiple institutions and the technological savvy that is employed in their pursuit.  Some things – the traditional high school college night – haven’t changed, but some are wholly new and tailored to the techno-savvy teens.

Why?  Because the institutions are desperately trying to gain enough paying students to offset the significant funding cuts that are taking hold.  State colleges and universities are losing government monies while private colleges are further seeing their endowments whacked.  The intent is to enroll students and keep the cash flowing as long as possible while they work to stop the hemorrhage.  Faculty and programs are being cut and construction projects are being either reevaluated for necessity or shelved.

Given the stark circumstances, how has student recruitment changed from then to now?

Mailing Lists

The practice of trolling for possible students from mailing lists isn’t new.  For years, colleges gained the names from the rosters of students from the College Board’s PSAT/SAT lists and American College Testing ‘s PLAN/ACT exams.  This continues today but the net has widened considerably.

If you remember the thick books with the names, addresses and criteria for various scholarships, you’ll be pleased to know that these are now online and infinitely easier to use.  Examples of such sites are, and .  You – and/or your teen – can register and complete a surprisingly detailed questionnaire; when I first saw it, I was relieved that my daughter would be using it lest it ask for a sperm count.  Questions not only pertain to your kid, but also you and the mother and relevant past history.  Did any parents or grandparents serve in the military?  Do you belong to any civic or professional organizations?  Are there unfortunate family circumstances?  Let’s face it, your infirmity puts your child ahead in the financing race.  My going blind and dying in the course of saving whales would be the scholarship Powerball for my kids.  The end result of the questions would be to match them against keywords for each of the thousands of  available scholarships in the database and advise which would have some potential for application.

Mailings can also emanate from specific interest sites that your kid has visited in pursuit of their interests.   Our eldest has also received targeted mail from an institution that knew of her specific interests.  In one case, a women’s college with a writer’s program contacted her about their curriculum.  Eldest is a published teen poet/writer and out of curiosity, I contacted their admissions department to find how they obtained her name.  The admissions counselor acknowledged that her name had been on a purchased mailing list, but was unable to state where that mailing list originated.  Since she’s submitted articles and poetry via various online sites, my best conclusion is that these sites are compiling the personal data onto mailing lists and selling them.

College eHarmony Sites

There are collegiate eHarmony sites such as and  I refer to them that way since their principal reason for existence is to match students with any number of institutions that meet their criteria – which might or might not change over the course of the next week.  Again, their system uses the responses from an online questionnaire to match against multiple colleges that have offerings which would be of interest to the potential student.

What’s interesting about a site like however, is the way in which they’ve developed a social networking component akin to Facebook.  Students can also upload photos of themselves and complete a profile and then tag it to the various colleges which are of interest; they can then see who else is considering that particular college.  Students with similar interests can tag others and thus refer to them as their “dweebs”.  Wanna see a college dat’s da choice 4 teens with frizzy hair and tongue bolts?  Heer’s da place for U!  Wassamatta U!

If you remember your teen years, you might recall wondering who in the hell would ever be interested in an acne-riddled, geeky, spastic hulk like yourself.  The colleges play to that adolescent insecurity by also noting their interests with “loves” that they send to students on the site.  Hey!  We know that you’re there and we think that you’re special!  If you wanna talk to one of our own students, we’ve got some who’ll answer your questions – replete with photos of smiling, handsome kids who give some hope to the teens that they, too, might survive their teenage years.  For the benefit of parents who lurk the site, all of the college student photos show them as sober and fully clothed.

Some college websites also present testimonials of students that demonstrate the physical and intellectual attractiveness of the student body.  These videos indicate that the students will more closely resemble Gregory Marmalard and Douglas C. Neidermyer than Kent Dorfman.

But that’s just my take.

Summer Scholar Programs

While they do serve a legitimate purpose, some institutions also use their campuses in the summer to hold “summer scholar” programs for high school students.  The college offers courses for high-achieving students for a several week period in the summer; there is a several thousand dollar fee and the kid has the opportunity to see what college life is like.  Again, my observation has been that these offers have come from colleges who’ve already targeted my kid with other correspondence about their existence.

Understand that with more than 4100 accredited colleges and universities in this country, the competition will be intense for new students.  Since most teens are technologically ahead of the folks and colleges are loaded with teens, the methods might escape our notice.  A study by Most fathers – and mothers – tend to step back from the technologically savvy teen, but a little awareness of what they’re seeing can help you guide them in a direction that’s not ruled impacted solely by emotion.

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