College Guide


May 03, 2013 4:41 PM The Low Information College Applicant

By Daniel Luzer

The competition for students is intense. Colleges need to seem really attractive in order to get new kids to sign up for their particular institution. So they engage in fancy marketing efforts. Glossy mailings. Disney-like campus tours. Targeted Youtube videos.

Yes, we know this looks like a lot of money, they say, but we offer “generous financial aid” (mostly in the form of loans) and it’s really an “investment” in your future (though we’re not going to talk much about the actual return on that investment). You’ve got more questions? Sure, we’d be happy to put you in contact with—ooooh, check out that shiny new student center!

This seems mildly deceptive, but well, we sort of assume students know what they’re getting into. Advertising is everywhere, but can’t students (and more importantly parents) cut through the bullshit and focus on what really matters: cost and education quality?

Not if they’re poor. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Disadvantaged students are more likely to search for colleges haphazardly, rather than in the systematic way a good counselor would encourage. And that makes them more susceptible to marketing from lower-tier colleges that may not be a good fit, academically or financially.

That’s from a new paper (not available online), “Easy Targets: Haphazard College Searching and the Reproduction of Inequalities in Higher Education,” by sociology graduate student Megan M. Holland. Holland demonstrates that,

While 91 percent of high-achieving students searched systematically, only 8 percent of low-achieving students did. Among white students, 81 percent searched systematically; 24 percent of African-American students did. And 63 percent of students with at least one parent with a bachelor’s degree searched systematically, while 21 percent without a college-educated parent did.

This doesn’t, technically, prove they’re worse off—all of this systematic searching doesn’t necessarily mean the outcome is superior—but it sure doesn’t help.

It’s not that surprising but this should make us more aware of quite what all this marketing is buying. It’s not inevitably helping students to choose the right information.

High school students who need the most information about college might best be characterized as “low information” students. Like low information voters, they’re the ones most likely to be swayed by misleading advertising and vague promises.

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer


  • ceilidth on May 04, 2013 4:19 PM:

    No doubt that lower income students are more susceptible to marketing by low grade colleges. Nothing like watching a slacker dude on afternoon TV make a pitch for Everest College and how you can get a degree online working with your schedule (the one where you sleep until noon). But, seriously, I doubt that many college searches are conducted by high information voters so to speak. Upper middle class students may know the names of the places they want but they are rarely knowledgeable about what makes a good fit for them. They are kids, after all. And their parents are likely to overextend themselves for those same names.

  • Demosthenes on May 05, 2013 10:40 PM:

    Upper middle class and upper class high school students are no less clueless than their poor counterparts, but their parents are savvy. They hire tutors for the standardized tests, make sure their kids visit the "right" schools, and push the students to decent schools. In contrast, poorer or uneducated families rarely do these moves. That's why students at the "top 50" US News ranked schools are mostly upper middle class or wealthy. Indeed, at many of these schools, the wealthy kids get merit scholarships, even though they don't need the money. It's unfair but it's how things work.

  • Sgt. Gym Bunny on May 06, 2013 11:30 AM:

    The more horrendous examples of low info applicants are the ones who get suckered into some technical/career college that is accredited by some official-sounding collection of for-profit colleges. I have a cousin who took out thousands of dollars of student loans for a nursing degree that no respectable medical facility actually recognized.

    These bloodsucking colleges just love to tout that their accredited by the American Council of Academic Councils of Excellent Education... knowing full well that it means diddly squit.