“Mail From Colleges: Junk Mail—or Not!”

By Peter Van Buskirk

As students come of college-going age, it is not uncommon for them to find their mailboxes (and inboxes) full of unsolicited promotional materials from colleges and universities around the country. At first, the attention is flattering. Glossy brochures, promises of scholarships and stories of personal educational experiences prove to be effective enticements to students eager for some reassurance that a college awaits.

Before long, however, eagerness gives way to cynicism as the unrelenting messaging from countless colleges begins to run together to form a homogeneous stew. What was initially ego food (“Look! They want me!”) has become junk food as the “trash bin” fills quickly.

The back-story on this mailing phenomenon is that colleges and universities are spending a great deal of time and money to get the word out about their institutions. They buy lists of student names by the tens of thousands whose test results and self-reported GPAs would seem to make them viable candidates. And, then, the “pitch” begins.

It’s all about marketing as even the most well-known among institutions seek to position themselves as destinations for high-talent students. The premium on pre-qualified names is such that lead generation—the “mining” of names—has become a big business behind the scenes of the college-going process.

Interestingly, the practice of lead generation as a source of prospects for college recruitment has been around for many years. It has recently become viewed in a different light, however, as enrollment strategists are learning to apply a complex set of market analytics to student contact data that is at their disposal. No longer concerned with simply prequalifying students academically, they are determined to identify students who are more likely to enroll if admitted.

In what is something of a covert operation, colleges are now tracking students as they visit campuses, attend information sessions in high schools, open their emails and even as they collect information about the college on various online search engines. The fact that a student has in any way entered the “foot-print” of the institution, electronic or otherwise, is now discoverable to the institution. The result: said institution is able to attach values to the different contacts to develop a metric that predicts, with a high degree of accuracy, the likelihood that the student will enroll before she has even submitted an application!

If predictive data can be used to target students for recruitment, it doesn’t take much imagination to see how admission officers, especially at highly selective institutions, might be inclined to use it as they make fine distinctions between academically able candidates. Make no mistake—this variable is very much in play at “crunch time” in the selection process as institutions strive to stock their acceptance lists with “high-yielding” students.

The implications for the prospective applicant should be clear. While your transcript and resume will get you into the competition at schools of choice, it will often be the degree of confidence you give the decision-makers in your likelihood of enrollment that will make the difference in the outcome of your application.

It would make sense, then, to get—and stay—on the radar screens of decision-makers at the colleges of interest. Primary among them are the admission staffers who are assigned the task of recruiting in your region. Don’t allow yourself to be regarded as a stranger at a point in their deliberations when they are more inclined to go with candidates who are known entities or “sure things” from a yield perspective.

And you might think twice about your response to the correspondence—mail, emails and surveys—you receive from the schools that interest you. Instead of hitting the “delete” button, consider the implications of thoughtful engagement—of allowing a conversational exchange to develop with the regional recruiter on matters of importance to you in the admission process at that school. Conversely, the absence of thoughtful engagement, or even a response, will raise questions about the sincerity of your interest in the school.

While there is no guarantee that demonstrating interest by responding in appropriate ways will result in your admission to a given institution, doing so will reduce the questions about the likelihood of your enrollment if admitted and return the focus of the deliberations to the factors that reflect your strength as a candidate.

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