Mailers Aplenty

Will colleges ever stop sending brochures to your house? The answer is no. At least not until your high school student graduates. Direct mail, despite all that ends up in the recycling, remains one of the most economical ways for colleges to attract prospective students. Promotional material sent via email has made contacts with students even more of a bargain for the admissions offices that generate and send them.

Iowa State University and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln were among the first colleges to contact the Edina High junior who lives in our house. Iowa State’s Phil Caffrey, director of admissions operations and policy, pointed out that the Ames school recruits students for three classes all at the same time. Mailing or emailing promotional pitches to seniors, juniors and sophomores marks the “beginning of the student search cycle,” he said. The marketing drive to turn high school students into “prospects” never stops.

Colleges typically purchase lists containing thousands of student names and addresses. Among the list providers are the College Board, which administers the SAT, the Educational Opportunity Service (part of ACT) and the National Research Center for College and University Admissions, which boasts on its website of operating “The Nation’s Largest Student Database.”

Lists include the names of “students who essentially raise their hand” offering to be placed on them, said Eric Berg, vice-president for enrollment management at Duluth’s College of St. Scholastica, a heavy user of direct-mail marketing. For each name, and depending on the data included, colleges will pay between 20 cents and one dollar, Berg estimated. Email addresses are particularly valuable both because they cost nothing for printing and postage, and because students today tend to respond better to electronic solicitations.

Students who attend college fairs, or who check boxes on survey or test questionnaires allowing for their names to be shared, make their personal information widely available.

List providers collect the information, enter it into databases and segment it into marketable data, which may include ethnic, financial and academic information. Students with a 3.5 grade-point average can expect to receive more mail than those with a 2.0, and high SAT or ACT scores will lead to more mail than low scores.

Public institutions rely heavily on revenue from students who come from outside the state, since tuition for out-of-state students is often double what local residents pay. About 25 percent of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s freshman class comes from outside the Cornhusker state. Their admissions office targets students mainly from three geographic areas: the Twin Cities, Chicago and Denver.

Yohlunda Mosley, the university’s senior associate director of admissions, said that “we are competing for students with our Big Ten peers,” and with regional rivals such as Kansas and Kansas State as well. Mosley said that her department employs a “steady calendar of things that go out,” including direct mail, email and social media promotions. Measuring the results of college marketing campaigns is imprecise at best. And while Mosley suggested that electronic contacts seem most effective with students, “we know that parents appreciate our mailings,” she said.

College admissions departments want to attract students they believe most likely to attend and succeed at their school and target their mailings accordingly. As St. Scholastica’s Berg put it, “schools are casting their lines out there for students” and the “buying parameters” of lists they use reflect the type of individual they hope to enroll.

Seniors accepted for admission can expect their volume of mail to climb dramatically, as colleges ramp up efforts to close the deal, trying hard to get them to show up on campus in the fall.