[OP-ED]: Don’t be blinded by the flattery from college recruiters
Many high schools across the country require that sophomores take the preliminary SAT or the practice ACT in preparation for the junior-year tests, which help determine their competitiveness at highly selective schools. When they do this, the students have the option to fill in a bubble on their answer packet agreeing to let prospective schools contact them in the future.
This is how it came to be that on the day after the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, my mailbox was stuffed with 12 (and counting) ego-stroking letters from colleges across the country for my youngest son.
Seeing them all at once served to highlight the baffling array of unsolicited pitches students and their parents must wade through when trying to decide where to spend untold thousands of dollars on a chance at a degree.
By turns, these letters, most often signed by the university’s director of admissions, said my son was “a talented student with a bright future,” “unique,” “motivated” and “accomplished.” Some were more flattering than others: “I know a future leader when I see one -- and from what I can tell about your successes so far, you’re going places.”
Some employed a supportive, consultative tack: “I want to help you prepare to catch the attention of admissions staff at any college (as you’ve certainly caught mine).” And: “Because I’m interested in you and your continued success, I want to help you find the school where you’ll be happiest and truly excel.”
All offered personalized listicle-style “guides” -- ostensibly a free and helpful gift of insight into the college admissions process, but really designed to convert letter readers (who have been provided with individual usernames and identifier numerical passwords) into website visitors.
There’s “4 Tips for a Successful College Search,” “5 Smart Ways to Select Your Ideal College,” “5 Signs a College Is Worth It,” “Five Ways to Find a College That Maximizes Your Potential,” “5 Reasons Your Application Will Stand Out,” “The Seven Things Students Forget When Choosing a College,” “7 Tips for Motivated Students” and my non-numerical favorite: “Your ‘Wow’ Factor -- and How to Use It to Start Your Career.”
I’d share some tips but none of these guides were accessible without logging in and inputting lots of personal details about mom and dad’s finances and contact information into super-spammy looking websites.
Although three out of the 12 inquiries that we got were from actual universities with long-standing reputations and ties to their campus communities, others were -- to two parents with three graduate degrees between them -- obviously sketchy.
One school, which in its letter boasted about “state-of-the-art facilities and the latest technologies” and professors that “take the time to get to know students and do what it takes to help them succeed,” was described in bracing terms on a consumer complaints website.
Called “shady,” “only in it for the money” and a “sham,” one student posted about this “university” in the hopes of starting a class-action suit: “Please, if you are tired of their predatory lending practices and false promises, call me and let’s work together.”
I’m not suggesting that all universities and colleges that do heavy direct-mail marketing are scams, but it used to be that a simple check about whether a school was non- or for-profit could set your mind at ease -- and that’s no longer the case.
But it tends to be the degree mills, the for-profit schools and poorly regulated distance learning schools that pour millions of dollars into complex digital marketing recruitment strategies. These tactics put the most vulnerable applicants -- first-time college students and their families -- at greatest risk.
Last February, the Department of Education created a Student Aid Enforcement Unit to respond more quickly and efficiently to allegations of questionable actions, misconduct or suspected fraud by higher education institutions. It aimed to build on steps the Obama administration had taken to protect students from aggressive recruiting practices. The actions include the creation of consumer tools to help families make more-informed college choices, gainful employment regulations aimed at ensuring that students at career colleges don’t leave campus with crushing debt, and enforcement of the ban on incentive compensation from recruiters.
But until all these efforts truly get off the ground, the onus is on parents.
As you get your bundles of college come-ons, check with the Federal Trade Commission’s resources (https://www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0206-college-degree-scams) for avoiding degree scams, for investigating accreditation and for direct links to reputable sources for comparing university programs. Deciding where to go to college is too consequential to get wrong.