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Micro-Targeting Students


For years, colleges have sought out applicants who have high test scores or who can throw a football. But increasingly the targets are far more precise, in part because of technology and in part because recruiters are under the gun to meet enrollment goals.

Now, it’s easier for recruiters to use millions of high school students’ personal information to target them for certain traits, including family income or ethnicity, or even to predict which students will apply, enroll and stay in college.

These tactics, which are beginning to resemble the data-driven efforts used by political campaigns, have already prompted internal discussions at the College Board. Advisers to the College Board — which has data on seven million students it sells to about 1,100 institutions each year – met early this summer and talked about doing more to police how colleges can use the board’s student data, but a committee decided not to change the current policies.

Colleges Are Using Big Data To Predict Which Students Will Do Well—Before They Accept Them


David Wright is Wichita State University‘s (WSU) Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs. In his position, Wright is responsible for overseeing the vast amounts of data WSU uses to track student and faculty performance. Like a growing number of American educational institutions, Wichita State uses predictive analysis tools to optimize their offerings and steer help to students who need it.

“We know our data better than an outside agency. We know the business practices in our system better, which outside vendors don’t do, and this allows us to do more with the data than them,” Wright tells Co.Exist. Using data points such as a student’s paper grades, the amount of hours he or she is enrolled during each semester, whether they’re working part-time or full-time or not at all, the amount of assistance from family and a host of other factors, WSU can predict which students are likely to encounter problems.

Getting Inside the Mind of an Applicant


That complicates life for enrollment leaders, whose ability to meet numerous institutional goals — academic profile, tuition revenue — depends on forecasts of how many students will show up. The less colleges know about applicants, the hazier their crystal balls become. Who’s serious? Who applied only as a worst-case backup option? Such questions echo across a competitive marketplace as many administrators watch the steady decline of their yield, the percentage of accepted students who enroll.

“I would argue that the more time and energy spent on students who’ve shown us they love us, the better it is for everyone.”

But colleges are hardly letting go of the wheel. Instead, they’re using an array of high-tech strategies to keep control of the ship. They’re gathering more data than ever before, not just on who students are, but what they do, especially online. That includes tracking the behavior of prospective applicants as they click through a college’s website. Just as Zappos knows which sneakers to show a specific shopper, some colleges now know which major to tell a would-be applicant more about at the very moment he wants to know.