Colleges recruit students with credit card-inspired mass mailings

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The New York Times reports on the ease with which a few small colleges are boosting applications with clever direct mail marketing campaigns -- that look a lot like credit card offers.

The mass mailings are designed to make the prospective applicant feel special: envelopes marked "distinctive candidate application" contain letters offering a waiver of application fees and essay requirements -- and in some cases, a decision can be yours in just three weeks.

One obvious problem is that these gushing letters often read like acceptances, even though they can often lead to rejection. I looked at this problem in a column for TheDailyBeast last year. But it's not surprising that colleges do this: There's too much at stake (more applicants equals a better US News ranking), and clever marketing works too well with high school students to skip it for ethical reasons.

When the University of Chicago was struggling to attract the students that it wanted to fill its freshman class, it tapped McKinsey & Company to propose new marketing strategies. McKinsey reported that the university was unknown to many applicants, and some people even confused it with the University of Illinois, heaven forbid!

What did the university do? It tripled the amount of direct mail it sent to high school students and became one of the first colleges to begin targeting sophomores with mailings. Historically, the college admissions officers had focused their attention on juniors and seniors. Michael Behnke, Vice President and Dean of College Enrollment, believed that by being the first to contact high school students, it could establish what is known in the world of business as a "first mover advantage."

The strategy was a success and the University of Chicago's applicant pool soared, paving the way for the college to move up in the rankings and reestablish itself as a premier university -- not by changing the program or hiring brilliant new faculty members. All the admissions geniuses had to do was postmark some brochures a few months earlier.

The bottom line is high school students who are subjected to aggressive marketing can be influenced by factors outside of those that really matter. To avoid this problem, I suggest all students opt out of receiving mailings from colleges when they take the PSAT.

Your mailbox won't be clogged, your kid won't be tempted by marketing material written by consultants who know nothing about education, and it's better for the environment.

Zac Bissonnette's book College on a Dime will be published by Portfolio in the fall.
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