College Board changing Student Search™: The thing we’re all missing

Perhaps there is nothing so misunderstood as the College Board Student Search Service™ (SSS).  Each year, when students sign up for any of the suite of services College Board offers, they’re given the chance to participate in SSS, because they’re told they’ll get information from colleges about opportunities and scholarships and other things students are interested in. While that offer is true, it’s not, perhaps, complete.

What students don’t always realize is that checking this box gives College Board permission to send a lot of personal information to colleges who are looking for students like them, and that College Board gets about 50 cents each time they release a name to a college.  A college in Oklahoma, for instance, might be looking for more humanities students in Kansas, and thus can license (not “buy”) the names of English majors in the state who score at least a 1200. Or a college in Ohio that believes it’s not serving Hispanic students well can license the whole nation of Hispanic students who expressed an interest in programs they offer. That license is only limited by the number of names in the database and the college’s budget.

And many colleges abuse the privilege, often times bombarding students with nonstop emails (usually), and even printed viewbooks and postcards.  I’ve heard of colleges sending students over 200 email communications, even if that student never actively expresses any information: “Why is this college from 2,000 miles away that I never heard of sending me emails every two days?” is a common theme. The results often look like this:

Many colleges rely on Student Search, and the ones I’ve worked at are no exception. It’s almost certainly one of the reasons many colleges have expanded their reach over time, like, for instance, Tulane, which has seen its geographic base expand greatly from 1986 to 2020, as shown below in the first-year-class breakouts by geography.

This week, The College Board announced some sweeping changes to the way they run their Student Search™ service. (Full video here). This is potentially big news for students and for colleges who want to find them.

If you watch the video, and you think this is about a change in a business process, you’re right, of course. But there is probably something you’re overlooking as you watch. See if you can figure it out before the end of this blog post, when I’ll tell you what I think it is; I’ll end with a cautionary tweet how we should all view new rollouts from College Board.

Hint: Think of the Monkey Business video.

This change is ostensibly driven by privacy laws, specifically about information collected online. I’m a big fan of corporations (even nominally not-for-profit corporations that act like a business) obeying the law. So that’s good, at least. But whether forced or voluntary, it’s likely to change SSS for both colleges and students, and we don’t know yet whether that will be a good or a bad thing.

Traditional Student Search, we’re being assured, is still robust, and will be for at least a year, based on information collected on paper registrations which are not subject to the same restrictions. And some subset of students will always give up their information to College Board via a paper registration, or voluntarily on sites like Big Futures (although I’m frankly not sure why that might allow them to join SSS since Big Future is digital).

But in the future, College Board will be shifting to a “Connections™” service, run through a College Board application students install on their phone. There are some other changes too, like how colleges license names; you’ll be happy to know that Chicago, in this new model, is no longer a part of Illinois, but Seattle is now considered western Idaho.) I’m not sure colleges have many options but to go along, and that’s part of the big problem (more on this in a minute.)

There are some things I heard in the webinar that concern me, as someone who is charged with ensuring enrollment each fall is sufficient, and who has genuine concerns about students getting more and better access to college opportunities:

  • College Board talks about this as a “privacy first” model. Be very careful when College Board talks in Newspeak. Remember when they took down the granular AP data I visualized? They called it “streamlined reporting” when they said they would put up reports with less messy detail (that they have yet to do, at least the last time I checked).
  • Connections™ will be managed in an app on the students’ phones. They say 80% of students expressed favorable opinions about this, but of course, they asked about the ability to get scores faster in an app, and about getting information on financial aid and scholarships. (They never tell you the actual question they ask, of course, but only their particular spin on the results). I cannot imagine how many students will uninstall the software when it buzzes every four seconds from a college trying to reach out.
  • Connections™ is sort of modeled, I gather, after Cappex: College Board (I think…it was sort of fuzzy) will send the messages on the college’s behalf, and then, once the student wants more information, they’re free to request it and give up personally identifiable information, or PII, to the college.
  • However (see bullet point one) there was mention of analytics in the “privacy first” app. I reserve the right to be wrong based on the limited information I heard, but this sounds like College Board doublespeak. Students and parents have a right to know–explicitly–what College Board is going to analyze, and what subset of that is going to be made available to colleges. And I say this as someone who always wants more data, and complete access to the data.

Again, colleges will have little option but to buy into this. It’s the cost of doing business, and my guess is that this will end up costing us more (I have no concrete evidence of this, but COVID cost College Board something like $325M in revenue, and they have to make that up somehow.)

That’s the first, and biggest problem: College Board is still the de facto list broker, the font of information, for colleges who want to recruit students. We’ve ceded that to them out of inertia. It should not be this way. Something as important as college attainment and access should not reside with a company that shows time and time again that it will do what’s best for its business model and its bottom line. But here we are.

It’s really time to get them out of the list business. There is no reason that state departments of education or even the federal government could not work together to make this service or this product available to reputable, accredited colleges and universities who want to reach students, assuming some of them still believe that increased college attainment is a good thing (and I can’t believe I’m writing that in 2023). But we let College Board, and to a lesser extent, ACT, do this for us, with all the crap that comes along with their intrusion into American secondary education. While you’re watching the Monkey Business video and paying attention to what you think is happening, you’re missing the bigger point. There is a gorilla in the room.

The second problem? One of the presenters in the session said, “we’re working out how to de-duplicate names,” and “we don’t want to overwhelm you” with details of this new approach. That, in my experience, is College Board speak for “we’re making this up as we go.” As I once tweeted:

And that’s the stuff that is going to keep people in my job up at night.

(Disclaimer: I think I have captured the facts presented in the video correctly, but if not, let me know.)

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