Press Release/Statement | September 21, 2022

Series of Reports Find Common Recruiting Practice Perpetuate Bias, But Crucial for College Access of Underrepresented Students

Oakland, Calif. – The Institute for College Access & Success (TICAS) partnered with University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) Associate Professor Ozan Jaquette, University of Arizona Assistant Professor Karina Salazar, data scientist Crystal Han, and UCLA Phd student Patricia Martin to release a series of three comprehensive reports that explain and analyze the currently unregulated business of generating student prospects (“student lists”) for colleges across the United States to purchase and use for recruiting. Out today, Geodemographics of Student List Purchases: A First Look analyzes actual student list purchases made from the College Board by public universities while The Student List Business: Primer and Market Dynamics provides an overview of how student lists work, and recent dynamics in the market for student list data. Both reports find that although ‘student lists’ perpetuate biases and exclusion in recruiting, they also play an important role for college access, especially for underrepresented students. A third report exploring policy options to address the student list business is forthcoming.

As part of a wide-scale recruiting tactic, colleges and universities purchase student list products that contain the contact information of prospective students meeting their ‘search filter’ criteria (e.g., test score range, high school GPA, zip codes). The researchers found that ‘student lists’ systematically exclude students in two ways. First, since standardized tests have historically been the primary vehicle for collecting data about prospects, students who do not take tests have been largely excluded from the underlying database. Second, universities choose which prospect profiles to purchase by selecting ‘search filters’ (e.g., test score range, GPA, zip code). Commonly used filters – particularly ‘geodemographic’ filters – can lead to  the routine exclusion of students from low-income communities and communities of color. Counterintuitively, the rise of test-optional policies in higher education may further increase inequities in college access, making the student information provided for sale even less representative and create an opportunity for private equity firms to make further gains in controlling and profiting from this highly in-demand information.

“Student list products should be focusing on the goal of equality of opportunity for students,” said Ozan Jaquette, the lead researcher for the project. “Unfortunately, these products are designed around the enrollment goals of colleges and universities, the customers who pay for lists. Over time, student list products have developed new search filters to efficiently target ‘right-fit’ prospects, for example, filters that target prospects based on the historical college-going behaviors of students from the same neighborhood or school. Our analyses show that these filters can facilitate the efficient exclusion of students from underrepresented populations.”

The federal government has never designed policies that account for the risks introduced by these data collection techniques, which have become more prevalent and sophisticated over time. The student list business has the opportunity to improve or worsen disparities in college access depending on how the market and its products are overseen in the coming years. A third report, Student List Policy: Problems, Regulations, and A Solution, (to be released in the coming week) details how Congress, the Department of Education, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and the Federal Trade Commission can work together to address the equality of opportunity implications of the student list business for students and families.

“At the intersection of privacy, business, big data, opportunity, and access to a critical public good, data aggregation and sales practices raise questions not only about student privacy but also about what information ought to be used in college recruitment and admissions,” said Sameer Gadkaree, TICAS president. “The fact that colleges and universities can hone in on prospective students in ways that could worsen racial and economic divides should raise alarms for students and families, as well as policymakers.”

A public webinar discussing the findings will be made available in the coming weeks. If you are interested in learning from the authors, please contact TICAS’ associate director, strategic communications, Angelique Palomar.