The Atlantic

How Colleges Use Big Data to Target the Students They Want

By tracking prospective pupils’ digital footprints, schools can make calculated decisions about their admissions outreach—for a price.
Source: James A. Finley / AP

This is part two in a three-part series on the role of Big Data in the college-search process. You can read part one on colleges’ year-long pursuit of students here. Check back for part three on data in an era of demographic change.

A decade ago, Saint Louis University found itself in a precarious situation. About half of the university’s 8,600 undergraduates were from Missouri and Illinois, and the demographic forecast for the Midwest looked bleak: the number of high-school graduates from the region was projected to drop by nearly a third by 2028.

So the university started to dig deeper for prospects in its backyard, purchasing more names of prospective high-school students from the College Board and ACT and targeting those teenagers with marketing materials. At one point, admissions officials at Saint Louis University were buying upwards of 250,000 names annually.

“We approached searching for students

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