Episode 163: What High Schools Do Colleges Visit?

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Welcome back to our new series entitled Looking to Next Year.  Today, we want to look at a well-known college recruitment practice and its ramifications.  That practice is the visiting of high schools by college admissions staff.  Maybe our discussion today won’t come as a surprise to you; but, whether it does or doesn’t, it’s a sad commentary on the U.S. in 2018.

1. A New Study

Just a few episodes ago, we quoted from an article in Inside Higher Ed by Scott Jaschik, and today we find ourselves doing that again.  This article is forebodingly titled “Where Colleges Recruit . . . and Where They Don’t.”

Here is the story:

[F]or many colleges, reaching out to students in person at high school events is a key part of the recruitment process. And even for the [elite colleges], this is an important part of outreach and regularly results in applications from those who might not have otherwise applied. But where do the [colleges] go to recruit?

A new study being presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association suggests that these visits favor those who attend high schools where family income is high. And these high schools are likely to be whiter than the population as a whole.

Two of the researchers–Ozan Jaquette, an assistant professor of education at the University of California, Los Angeles, and Karina Salazar, a doctoral candidate at the Center for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Arizona–published a summary of their findings in The New York Times. (quoted from the article)

So, let’s look at that opinion piece in The Times by Mr. Jaquette and Ms. Salazar.  They wrote about their findings, based on data from college visits–not any other kinds of student recruitment–made in 2017 by 150 colleges.  Here are some of those findings in their own words:

The clearest finding from our study is that public high schools in more affluent neighborhoods receive more visits than those in less affluent areas.

Only about a third of households across the country earn more than $100,000 annually, but nearly half of high schools receiving visits by private colleges and universities were in neighborhoods where average incomes were higher. Connecticut College visited neighborhoods with an average median household income of $121,578. Private colleges also disproportionately visited private high schools over public high schools.

Andy Strickler, dean of admissions at Connecticut College, said the school targets high schools that have historically provided students, or other schools that have a similar profile.

He said there was a good reason Connecticut College doesn’t always visit other areas: “There’s a trend for these students to stay closer to home for college.” (quoted from the opinion piece)

I get that colleges understandably visit high schools that have sent students in the past or schools with demographic characteristics like those high schools.  I get that colleges need to recruit as cost-effectively as possible.  I get that kids in high schools in less affluent neighborhoods probably do “stay closer to home for college,” for better or worse.  But I still am a bit disappointed by all of it.

Nonetheless, let’s not single out Connecticut College.  There is a chart in the opinion piece that shows that plenty of other colleges do exactly the same thing–that is, visit high schools in neighborhoods with higher median incomes than high schools they don’t visit.  And, what’s worse, lots of those colleges are public universities.  Let’s look back at what Mr. Jaquette and Ms. Salazar write about that:

While public research universities visited rich and poor neighborhoods nearly equally when recruiting in their home states, they visited the same affluent high schools targeted by private colleges when recruiting elsewhere. Most public colleges also visited far more high schools out of state than in-state. The median income of areas where the University of Pittsburgh recruited out of state, for example, was $114,000, compared with $63,000 for areas that were not visited. . . .

The attention public universities lavish on wealthy out-of-state schools is a response to state policy. Over the past decade, many states have cut funding for higher education, forcing public universities to become more dependent on tuition revenue. Research shows that public universities responded by enrolling more out-of-state students, who often pay two to three times more than state residents. And of course, only well-off students can afford that. . . .

In their out-of-state visits, our data also suggest, public universities were more likely to visit predominantly white public high schools than nonwhite schools with similar levels of academic achievement. For example, [in the Boston metropolitan area], the University of Colorado Boulder visited Dover-Sherborn Regional High School, which is 88 percent white and has about 154 students with proficient math scores, according to the federal Department of Education. But it did not visit Brockton High School, where just 21 percent of students are white but about 622 students have proficient math scores.

“In order to be good stewards of our funding, we consistently recruit at schools that have historically given us applications,” said Colleen Newman, admissions director at Boulder. “Given our limited funding, we are unable to expand our traditional recruitment efforts to all regions and all high schools that have academically talented students.” (quoted from the opinion piece)

Well, as loyal listeners know, I love recommending Boulder.  I think it is friendly to students from the East Coast and a great all-around university.  But I have to admit that I am not crazy about this recruitment strategy, though I understand the reasoning, of course.

Here are some more things I did not know, however.  I guess that I might have figured this out if I had thought about it, but I just never did.  I am wondering how much you have thought about this, parents.  Listen up:

Colleges don’t treat recruitment lightly. It’s big business for colleges and the firms they hire. Most colleges identify prospects by purchasing lists of students and their backgrounds from the testing agencies College Board and ACT. They can also hire enrollment management consulting firms, which integrate data from the university with data on schools and communities. This helps them decide which schools should be visited and which should be targeted with emails and brochures. One consulting firm we spoke with even knows information about individual students such as their family income and net worth, and the value of their home.

If colleges have all this data, why aren’t they better at targeting talented poor students and students of color?

The most common explanation is that there aren’t enough of them applying (the so-called achievement gap). Another explanation we hear is that talented students don’t apply because they don’t have the right guidance (called “under-matching”). . . .   Our data [suggest] universities are determined to court wealthier students over others, and they expend substantial resources identifying and reaching them.

There are many students from poor communities who get excellent grades but end up going to a community college because no one bothers looking for them. If colleges are serious about increasing socioeconomic and racial diversity, they should look for merit everywhere, not just in wealthy, white communities. (quoted from the opinion piece)

It’s hard to disagree with that conclusion.  It’s especially hard to disagree with that conclusion for public universities, which have a mission to serve the taxpayers in their own states.  It’s concerning that public universities might be pricing themselves out of the market for the students who need them most in their home states–or even for the students who need them most from other states.

In putting together his article, Mr. Jaschik corresponded with Mr. Jaquette about his study.  Here is part of that correspondence:

Jaquette, via email, said there is a contradiction between colleges’ statements that they are doing everything possible to recruit low-income, disadvantaged students and the findings of the new study.

“Scholarship on organizational behavior–on all types of organizations–finds that organizations publicly adopt goals demanded by the external environment,” he said. “But these public statements are poor indicators of actual organizational priorities. How they spend real resources is a better indicator.” (quoted in the article)

In other words, colleges might say that they are looking hard to bring in more low-income students because it is the politically correct, or even morally correct, thing to say.  However, their actions (in this case, their spending habits) speak louder than words.

2. What Does This Mean for You

So, what does this mean for you?  Possibly nothing, if you live in a relatively affluent neighborhood and your kid attends a high school with relatively affluent classmates.  The chances are good that college recruiters are going to come calling both now and in the fall.

But if you don’t live in a relatively affluent neighborhood and your kid does not attend a high school with relatively affluent classmates, the chances are good that you are going to have to look harder to investigate colleges and make your kid known to them.  It might mean that you will need to visit colleges in order to get colleges to notice your kid (although I wish you didn’t have to until after your kid is accepted and you all are trying to make a final decision).  Oh, unless you live in one of the places identified in a 2012 study by Caroline M. Hoxby and Christopher Avery and cited by Mr. Jaschik in his article:

[The study] found a tendency by colleges to recruit only at high schools where they will find a critical mass of talented low-income students and not the many others where academic achievement may be more rare. The high schools having success at placing students in competitive colleges are in large metropolitan areas (generally from 15 cities) and their students are “far from representative” of the academic talent among low-income students, the authors write.

So it’s not that colleges don’t recruit at low-income high schools, but they favor the magnet over the typical high school–even though there are many students with ability who do not attend magnet high schools. (quoted from the article)

Indeed there are, and your kid might be one of them.

3. Happy Memorial Day

Well, it’s hard to believe that Memorial Day is just around the corner.  We are going to celebrate next week, but we will be back with you on May 31with the best episode we have ever done.  Stay tuned!

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