The Low Information College Applicant

The competition for students is intense. Colleges need to seem really attractive in order to get new kids to sign up for their particular institution. So they engage in fancy marketing efforts. Glossy mailings. Disney-like campus tours. Targeted Youtube videos.

Yes, we know this looks like a lot of money, they say, but we offer “generous financial aid” (mostly in the form of loans) and it’s really an “investment” in your future (though we’re not going to talk much about the actual return on that investment). You’ve got more questions? Sure, we’d be happy to put you in contact with—ooooh, check out that shiny new student center!

This seems mildly deceptive, but well, we sort of assume students know what they’re getting into. Advertising is everywhere, but can’t students (and more importantly parents) cut through the bullshit and focus on what really matters: cost and education quality?

Not if they’re poor. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Disadvantaged students are more likely to search for colleges haphazardly, rather than in the systematic way a good counselor would encourage. And that makes them more susceptible to marketing from lower-tier colleges that may not be a good fit, academically or financially.

That’s from a new paper (not available online), “Easy Targets: Haphazard College Searching and the Reproduction of Inequalities in Higher Education,” by sociology graduate student Megan M. Holland. Holland demonstrates that,

While 91 percent of high-achieving students searched systematically, only 8 percent of low-achieving students did. Among white students, 81 percent searched systematically; 24 percent of African-American students did. And 63 percent of students with at least one parent with a bachelor’s degree searched systematically, while 21 percent without a college-educated parent did.

This doesn’t, technically, prove they’re worse off—all of this systematic searching doesn’t necessarily mean the outcome is superior—but it sure doesn’t help.

It’s not that surprising but this should make us more aware of quite what all this marketing is buying. It’s not inevitably helping students to choose the right information.

High school students who need the most information about college might best be characterized as “low information” students. Like low information voters, they’re the ones most likely to be swayed by misleading advertising and vague promises.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer