Higher-Ed Marketing and the Disadvantaged Student

Add another barrier disadvantaged students looking to go to college face when negotiating the maze of a successful higher education: Too many of these students conduct an unfocused, disorganized approach to finding the right college, making them too impressionable to marketing from colleges that may not fit their academic or economic needs. 

That’s the conclusion of Megan M. Holland, assistant professor in the University at Buffalo’s (UB) Graduate School of Education, in the study “Easy Targets: Haphazard College Searching and the Reproduction of Inequalities in Higher Education.” 

The research results, which Holland presented in November at UB’s Sociology Colloquium and at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association earlier in 2013, found academic achievement, race and parents’ educational level were related to the kind of college search of college-bound students. 

Holland, a member of UB’s Educational Leadership and Policy faculty, says there is a national trend toward helping students make better, more informed college choices, especially in light of the increasing debt most students take on to attend college. 

“Considering this,” says Holland, “it’s important to understand how students make college applications decisions, and what influences them.” 

Research Looks at Influences

“My research shows that less-advantaged students can be influenced by higher education marketing, which sometimes encourages them to make application and enrollment decisions that don’t take into account their goals, interests, aptitudes and finances,” she says. “When students attend schools that are a ‘mismatch,’ they are less likely to graduate, and it puts them at a distinct disadvantage.” 

Holland’s paper is based on a two-year study at two suburban high schools in the Northeast where she interviewed 89 students. Through those interviews, Holland identified two main approaches to how students searched for a college. 

Some students were systematic, she says, examining what different kinds of colleges could offer them, and then focusing on the schools that met their individual needs they had developed over time. Other students conducted what she described as a “haphazard” search, one that is much more limited than the first search and not necessarily on colleges that matched their needs. 

The type of college search often followed academic achievement, race and parents’ educational level, according to Holland’s research. She found that 91 percent of high-achieving students in her sample conducted what she called systematic searches, but only 13 percent of low-achieving students did the same. Eighty percent of white students searched systematically, compared with only 24 percent of African-American students. 

Sixty-four percent of students with one or more parents with a bachelor’s degree did a systematic search, compared with only 16 percent of the students whose parents were not college-educated. 

This is even more significant because these students not conducting a thoughtful search were more impressionable to sales pitches by individual colleges trying to attract students. 

Marketing approaches make different impressions on these two groups, according to Holland. Students doing a haphazard, random search of colleges “enjoy feeling wanted” when they receive these marketing materials. Systematic searchers were “skeptical” of these same materials. “If colleges wanted them that much, it was a negative,” says Holland. 

The College Scorecard: A Good First Step

Some of the Obama administration’s new policy initiatives offer some hope for improvement, according to Holland. The College Scorecard website, for example, which gives students information on college costs, graduation rates and student loan default rates, is a good first step in helping students get the information they need, she says. 

“But many students may not look at it or investigate colleges too late,” she says. “High schools can play a critical role in exposing students to different types of schools early on in their high school careers, so that students are more aware of the nuances of the process. 

“Students need to be aware that there are many different types of colleges out there, and some provide a better ‘value’ and ‘fit’ than others.” 

Holland says she was always very interested in the college application process and took it very seriously when she applied to college. She did her college senior thesis on how students who attended different types of city public high schools navigated the college process. 

“I’ve always been fascinated by how much unstated, yet incredibly important information is needed to successfully navigate such a critical educational transition,” she says, “and how unequally this information is distributed among students from different social backgrounds.” 

Holland also got an insider’s perspective on how much information is needed to navigate the college-selection process while working as a private college counselor. 

“I was continually struck by how early on students with similar college aspirations diverged in their college paths,” she says, “and many times, this was during the college search.” 

Holland’s research was part of her larger dissertation work, which was funded by a NAEd/Spencer Dissertation fellowship, the Myra Sadker Dissertation Award and various fellowships and grants from Harvard University. 

Her paper has won the Candace Rogers Student Paper Award from the Eastern Sociological Society (2013) and was an honorable mention for the David Lee Stevenson Graduate Paper Award from the Sociology of Education Section of the American Sociological Society (2013). 

Charles Anzalone is senior editor for University Communications for the University at Buffalo (buffalo.edu/news). For more information, phone 716/645-6969 or email [email protected].