The Role of Data in College Admissions

In our modern world, where data about what we do is more abundant than ever before, it’s become a serious factor in both recruiting and admissions processes. This is true for business, and it’s increasingly become the norm for colleges as well. As the pathway to a college education becomes increasingly digital, institutions are relying more on advanced, data-driven systems to track down and admit the best students possible. To stay ahead of the curve and on top of your applications, you’ll need to know how colleges are making use of data in their decision-making.

Why the Data Matters

There are more than 4,000 colleges in the United States. Combined, these colleges have almost 20 million students in attendance. The average annual tuition, based on 2018 prices, is $17,797 at public institutions and $42,681 at private institutions.

Higher education is big business. Competition abounds —  between colleges and students trying to get into college — so schools have to do whatever they can to fill seats, minimize turnover, and maximize their revenues.

Enter data collection and applicant tracking. It’s a newer tool in the admissions playbook that allows colleges to learn more about prospective students than ever before. Taking their cues from businesses using resume and candidate screening, tech-savvy institutions are using artificial intelligence (AI) to screen recruits. The AI engines process the admissions packets much quicker than the human eye can.

They build up libraries on potential students, filled with demographic info like zip codes, household income, and ethnic background. The data doesn’t end there, however. Colleges will take whatever else they can get too — from web browsing histories to test scores.

In part, this is an effort to ascertain which students would be the most likely to accept an offer to attend the school and then thrive academically.

It’s also a way for schools to weed out applicants who may require financial aid while prioritizing students from families with better socio-economic backgrounds.

Schools, particularly the struggling ones, have fewer resources to spend and more competition to contend with when trying to attract applicants and boost tuition revenues. The predictive power of data allows them to do so while minimizing expenditures.

Going further, data and applicant tracking also allows colleges to extend their geographic reach. In the past, students willing to travel to go to school usually did so because they scored well on tests and had a wealth of options as to where they wanted to attend.

Identifying these students beforehand was difficult, so the idea of smaller schools attracting these talented applicants was more often than not a farfetched prospect.

Now, with data, schools can identify prospects from other regions, then personalize outreach efforts to more effectively get those students to apply and enroll.

Savvy colleges can even use data to make recruiting adjustments that enable them to boost the number of applicants they receive, get the number of students they require, and simultaneously reduce their acceptance rates — adding to the reputation of the school.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, with colleges in a precarious position when it comes to attracting applicants, competition between schools stands to get that much fiercer. They’ll be looking for every edge they can muster, and having the right data can make the difference when it comes to meeting their admissions goals.

Where Is This Data Coming From?

In many cases, according to the Washington Post, colleges do not tell students that they are collecting information about them. Many institutions also use cloud-based systems to help organize the large amounts of data they obtain. This naturally raises concerns about privacy and security, as all it would take is a simple breach for that information to be exposed.

While you might not be able to stop colleges from collecting information about you, you can stay aware of what channels they use to source data. In many cases, the software employed by colleges uses cookies to track students who visit the school’s website.

Cookies note the IP address of a student’s computer, and subsequent visits to the school website allow them to obtain more information based on the student’s web activity. Colleges then match those cookies to students’ real identities, allowing them to target the students they want to motivate into enrolling.

Person using magnet to extract data from human figures.

What Can Students Do to Adapt?

As a student, you aren’t in much of a position to stop colleges from data mining, and it’s likely that big data will only become more important to get into the school you want. So, according to admission consultants, your best option is to turn your knowledge of the admissions process to your own advantage.

Since colleges can (and probably are) tracking you through every means at their disposal, you should do what you can to show them that you’re interested. This can sometimes be the deciding factor between acceptance and rejection.

Specific actions that may work in your favor during the admissions process include reading emails sent to you by prospective colleges, following your colleges of choice on social media, and making real connections with decision makers (admission officers, professors, administrators, etc.) to show genuine investment in the school.

A Quick Recap

Data plays a big part in the college admissions process, allowing schools to enhance enrollment, better target prospects, and maximize their revenues.

While data mining efforts by colleges may spark some privacy concerns and worries about how the schools may use student data, the practice is not likely to fade anytime soon.

For students, this means the best approach is adapting to the current state of the admissions process. Interacting with their colleges of choice in whatever digital spaces they can is a good start, and making real-life connections at those schools will help further distinguish them as top-tier candidates for enrollment.

Bryce Hall