Students' answers to SAT a gold mine for colleges Schools buy data from personal questions on test application

March 12, 1997|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

The first thing high schoolers do with the SAT is to sit down, take a deep breath and respond to more than 20 detailed questions with a No. 2 pencil -- and that's not even the test.

Instead, they are completing the four-page application just to take the exam.

With their answers, the College Board -- which administers the Scholastic Assessment Test to more than a million students every year-- compiles statistical profiles for a database that it sells to colleges.

"They can tailor it just about any way you want," said Martha O'Connell, director of admissions for Western Maryland College. "It's the main tool that we use for admissions. We'd be foolish not to do it" -- to use the tool for admissions. What's your family's income bracket? What ethnicity are you? What is your expected academic major in college? How many years have you taken of Asian history? Did you work on your high school newspaper? Participate in marching band? Perform community service?

Western Maryland relies heavily on the College Board's Student Search Services. The Westminster liberal arts school purchases 70,000 names a year of high school sophomores and juniors to target ZIP codes that have provided many applicants in the past and to reach out to regions providing too few. From March to May each year, Western Maryland and 1,100 other schools send students piles of letters, hoping their missives will stand out.

As it has for more than a decade, Western Maryland offers an envelope with a "Doonesbury" comic printed on the outside and a stamped and addressed card on the inside to be sent requesting more information. If 12 percent to 15 percent respond, that's a successful effort.

"Folks here at the institution are sick of seeing the same thing for 12 years -- but I know it works," O'Connell said.

Like her peers at many colleges, O'Connell uses the mailing to reach students from underrepresented groups. Seeking women students from prairie states with three years of Spanish, a musical aptitude and a desire to become a mechanical engineer? No problem. For 22 cents a name, Student Search Services will print out a list of them all.

The database is derived from questions posed by the application forms for the SAT and the Preliminary SAT, which is taken by sophomores practicing for the SAT or seeking National Merit scholarships. In the PSAT and the SAT, students face a series of personal questions; answering them is entirely voluntary but the overwhelming majority of students do so.

While the SAT application is not overwhelming -- it can be completed on paper or on-line -- students complain that it takes 20 minutes or more at a time when their attention is being demanded from many directions. "It took more time than I imagined," said Paul Belin, a 17-year-old junior at Atholton High School in Howard County. "You had to keep looking back to the booklet and see what the numbers are for."

"It's a pain," said Kathleen Collins, 16, a junior at Seton Keogh High School in Southwest Baltimore. "There's so many little questions."

The College Board started asking these little questions 25 years ago at the behest of high school guidance counselors who were concerned that only a limited range of schools approached their students, said Brad Quin, director of College Board's enrollment planning services.

He also says the money earned from sale of the students' answers --in the millions of dollars -- was used to hold down the cost of the SAT, which is now $21 per student.

No credit card companies, banks, telephone companies, or any other commercial firms can purchase the names -- only accredited, two- or four-year colleges and universities.

"When they [students] get junk mail from booksellers or banks, they often think that's our fault," Quin said. But those lists are generated by professional direct mailing services from lists like those containing the names of subscribers to Seventeen magazine, or youths who signed up for McDonald's Birthday Club.

Quin said he even salts the lists with names of College Board staffers, so that they can see whether the mailings sent to students are appropriate.

The anxiety that more than a million seniors feel each fall in applying to college is preceded by a similar apprehension by college administrators about capturing the attention of students in their sophomore and junior years of high school.

"For small colleges, who don't have the prestige, who don't have spots at the halftime of each football game or basketball game, it's very important," said Thomas B. Martin, dean of enrollment management at Centre College in Danville, Ky. "It's probably less important for Harvard."

But Harvard University also uses the Student Search, as does the Johns Hopkins University, and many other private and public campuses. Even individual academic departments are becoming involved with the direct mailings.

"If kids are getting stuff from every other college and not from yours, how do you expect to compete?" asked Fred Pfursich, dean of admissions at Whitworth College in Spokane, Wash. His college spends $15,000 a year on direct mailings.

"It's a very competitive world. We're not Harvard, we're not Yale, we're not Swarthmore," Pfursich said. "We're a good regional, smaller, liberal arts religious college. We have to work harder getting the students we want."

Said Collins of the mass mailing: "I think it's beneficial. It might be from schools I've never considered before."

Pub Date: 3/12/97

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