How USF targets black applicants

The College Board’s Search Service lets schools buy students’ data, filtered by dozens of variables.

In our Oct. 24 issue, the Foghorn reported on USF’s use of digital tools to keep track of prospective students before they submitted an application. The Foghorn worked in collaboration with Washington Post reporter Douglas MacMillan, who reported on 33 American colleges and universities found to be using various tracking methods.

In an interview MacMillan conducted with Michael Beseda, USF vice provost for strategic enrollment, Beseda stated that the University has been purchasing the names and information of black students from standardized testing companies for admissions marketing. 

If you took the SAT or ACT and began receiving USF’s promotional emails shortly thereafter, your information was likely included in lists of thousands of high school students purchased by the University. Both the ACT and the College Board (which operates the SAT) make money selling student data and test scores to interested colleges and universities. 

“When you took the ACT or the SAT, one of the questions you were asked was, ‘Are you willing for your information to be shared with colleges and universities?’” explained Beseda “The way that the College Board or the ACT make a lot of their money is they sell that your name to colleges who buy it. Then that’s why soon after you take the PSAT or ACT you start to get emails or letters saying, ‘Hey, we got your name through the college search service.’”

The way that the College Board or the ACT make a lot of their money is they sell that your name to colleges who buy it. Then that’s why soon after you take the PSAT or ACT you start to get emails or letters saying, ‘Hey, we got your name through the college search service.

Michael Beseda

Each company has its own product platform. The College Board operates College Board Search, a set of three services which all draw from data collected from every SAT, PSAT, and AP Test taken each year. The flagship is the “Student Search Service,” which most students opt into when they take those tests. It allows universities to access the database of test-takers and filter their profiles by dozens of factors, one of which being race. Once they have identified the right cross section of students to target, they can purchase those students’ information for $0.47 per name.

The other services offered by the College Board, the Enrollment Planning Service ($7,710 per year) and Segment Analysis Service ($17,750 per year), allow schools to use more advanced analytics in identifying and targeting students. The latter uses geodemography, a theory that pairs geography with demography to study the ways in which populations with shared traits tend to gravitate closer together. As the College Board puts it, “birds of a feather flock together.” 

An example of this theory is higher-income households bunching within certain ZIP codes, or the clustering of ethnic groups within urban centers, such as the common Chinatown and Little Italy.

Relative to college recruitment, geodemography can pose some ethical conundrums. What stops a recruiting officer from overlooking certain ZIP codes because of the implication that poorer, less-educated households will gravitate around each other? Or, perhaps more sinisterly, declining to recruit students living in ethnically homogenous communities like Chinatown?

The ACT, one the other hand, explicitly allows schools to target their research by race. Its service, the Educational Opportunity Service, advertises that “purchasing sophomore, junior, and senior EOS names from racial and ethnic minorities is a great way to increase diversity at your campus.”

Traditionally, educational institutions hire firms to help them conduct outreach to spread a message to prospective students, such as the firm Fire Engine Red Consulting. When USF began using Slate, its enrollment management platform produced by Technolutions, it no longer had to hire those firms, meaning it could save money.

“When we purchased Slate, it allowed me, as the enrollment manager, to not spend money with other firms that do those email campaigns for us. And to actually buy the names of African American students,” Beseda explained. 

The University had already been purchasing the names of many students, across all ethnicities, within the state of California. By no longer using Fire Engine Red Consulting, Beseda said, “I had the money to then buy the names of African American students with solid academic characteristics” from outside the state of California.

Beseda said he believed that Post reporter MacMillan was concerned about how the tools facilitating racial targeting could be misused. “I was giving him an example of how they can be used for good ends. And in our case, it’s that we, as an institution, are rightly proud of the fact that we’re one of the most diverse institutions in the country,” Beseda said. “For almost 20 years, the real frustrating thing for people at USF was that the one area we were not as diverse as we wanted to be was African Americans. Our enrollment of entering African Americans had been stubbornly stuck at two or three percent for two, three decades.”

Beseda extolled the virtue of the expanded focus on black students, citing the creation of the Black Achievement Success and Engagement (BASE) program and the uptick in black student enrollment. Black students make up 7% of the fall 2019 freshman class, up from a campus-wide average of 5.4% — and up from 4.4% of the fall 2018 freshman class.  

Not all voices on campus shared the same assessment of the University’s techniques.

“I do understand the actual issue of trying to market towards students. And I understand the focus specifically on black students with the introduction of the BASE program,” said Ya’qub Elmi, the president of USF’s Black Student Union (BSU). But he said he did not like that the University was explicitly buying the names of black students. “You don’t even care about the actual livelihood of the student; you’re putting a dollar bill on their head.”

Elmi expressed displeasure at the experiences of black students at USF. “Are you providing financial aid for them? Are you customizing their living situation to make sure that they’re comfortable? What are you doing for the livelihood of the student? Because it seems to me you’re just doing it for the livelihood of the school and its name. You just have to talk about it …  We have a lot to talk about specifically on like the status of blackness here at USF.”

ASUSF Vice President of Advocacy Paolo Sayas shared a similar sentiment. “This is the paradox of this university,” he said. “I think what we should be aiming for is inclusivity, not necessarily picking people out like Pokémon cards, but actually fostering an inclusive environment.”

“Diversity is not something to sell,” Elmi said. “Diversity is never something to sell. Diversity, you should not have a dollar bill on it. Diversity should not be monetized. Diversity is an environment and a space created through reciprocated, truthful and transparent means and no, you don’t buy diversity.”

Students can discover what data USF has collected on them, and how it was collected, by submitting a Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) request. The Student Press Law Center offers a template for students, which would then need to be submitted to the University registrar. The University is required by law to make the report available to the requesting student within 45 days.


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